Great Expectations (1998)

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Review by Fernando Rafael of Commited to Celluloid

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It’s funny that I watched Great Expectations on the same week as Gravity, through no plan of my own. Both are directed by Mexican filmmaker extraordinaire Alfonso Cuarón, and while his latest movie is also probably his best, 1998’s adaptation of Charles Dickens’novel is quite possibly his very worst.

1995’s A Little Princess landed Cuarón the prestigious gig of directing a modern adaptation of Dickens’ classic story, brought to life by a top-notch cast any filmmaker would be lucky to work with.

Via Mitch Glazer, Dickens’s Pip is now Finn, a painter, and Victorian England is now Florida and New York.

It all goes a little like this, (per Rotten Tomatoes):

At a Florida fishing village, eight-year-old orphan Finn Bell, talented at art, is left in the care of his sister and her husband, Joe (Cooper). One day, Finn helps a chained, escapedconvict who appears in the surf. On other days, he visits Paradiso Perduto, where he plays with young Estella, niece of the mansion’s colorful, flamboyant, and extremely wealthy owner, Ms. Dinsmoor (Bancroft), who parallels the novel’s tragic Miss Havisham, a woman jilted at the altar and left emotionally scarred and mentally imbalanced.

As Ms. Dinsmoor watches Finn draw a portrait of Estella, she plots to mold Estella into a hard woman capable of destroying men. She vanishes, breaking Finn’s heart to such a degree that he doesn’t draw or paint for seven years, choosing to eke out a marginal existence with his uncle Joe (after Finn’s sister abandons the two).

Manhattan art representative Jerry Ragno turns up with a startling offer: if Finn will return to painting and relocate in New York, Ragno will give him a one-man show. With an apparent assist from Ms. Dinsmoor, Finn makes the move and begins his new life with great expectations and a deadline of 10 weeks to complete the necessary paintings.

When Finn next encounters Estella, she has a wealthy boyfriend, Walter (Azaria). As Finn once again becomes entranced by Estella, he also begins to question exactly how his life is being manipulated.

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Green is Alfonso Cuarón’s favorite color, and we see it in Y Tu Mamá También and Children of Men, but here it’s almost a character in itself. Green dresses, green curtains, green leaves and trees and eyes. The color of envy and wealth and emeralds is everywhere and it’s expertly captured by one of the finest cinematographers working today (or ever), Emmanuel ‘El Chivo’ Lubezki. His stunning imagery is the film’s biggest achievement.

Everything looks great: the opulent Paradiso Perduto, the NY galleries, the attractive, young quasi-lovers. But there’s no depth, and Cuarón just skims over the motivations, the pain, the regrets and gives us a picture that’s pretty to look at but not very interesting to stick with for almost two hours.

Ethan Hawke and Gwyneth Paltrow do not seem to be making much of an effort, but I doubt they could be motivated by this shallow adaptation. Cooper and Bancroft, on the other hand, exhibit great work in a pair of performances that would’ve been memorable if they hadn’t been contained in such a missed opportunity of a movie.

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You talkin’ to me, Alfonso?
Robert DeNiro plays Arthur Lustig, the convict that a young Finn helped and also –spoiler alert– (or not really if you’ve read the novel) his mysterious benefactor.

It’s a small but pivotal role: Lustig leaves a mark on Finn as a kid and, as an adult, well, he can be credited for the young man’s meteoric rise in the art world and social scene.

Lustig seems like a less evil variation on Max Cady, the character Robert played in Cape Fear, but pretty much all they share is looks. Lustig’s a guy with all the makings of a villain, but also a big heart (a very sizable wallet to go with that, too) and a deep sense of gratitude for a good deed done unto him many years ago.

Bobby has precious few minutes to make an impression but, of course, he does. What were you thinking? It’s Robert freakin’ DeNiro!

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Unmet expectations
We know Alfonso Cuarón can handle human drama. His last two movies are the best example of that. But he made Great Expectations while stuck in that awkward transition from the simple, indie mexicomedy in Sólo Con Tu Pareja to the Hollywood success he started to taste after directing Princess, and it doesn’t feel like his movie, whatever the hell that means.

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19 thoughts on “Great Expectations (1998)

  1. That poster is extremely unflattering to Ms. Paltrow. Am I supposed to assume she plays some sort of topless levitating mannequin?

    Good job with this review. I tried to watch this one a long time ago and shut it off about 30 minutes in because I was bored stiff.

  2. Very well delivered Fernando. I’m used to short and sweet reviews from your good self but it’s great to see you delve into this.

    I’d have to agree with you on this one. It’s certainly not Cauron’s finest moment. He did seem somewhat restrained. I live the Dickens tale and it was good to see it done for a contemporary audience but it really lacked a certain drive. Bobby, on the other hand, was fantastic. He wasn’t in it enough big when he was, he was spot on.

  3. Pingback: Analyzing De Niro: Great Expectations [1998] | Committed to Celluloid

  4. I own this because I have all of Hawke’s films but still haven’t seen this one… Thanks for encouraging me to finally watch it…. NOT!!!!!!!!! lol. Great analysis, Nanders.

  5. I liked it. In the novel, Dickens uses hands as imagery to distinguish the characters and Cuaron cleverly picks this up. Hawke is a broody Pip. Paltrow is a elegantly sexy as Estellla.

    Great piece. I encourage people to see it as it is ab honourable attempt at doing something different with the adaptation.

  6. Hmm….while I can’t say I really loved this particular novel (not the biggest Charles Dickens fan anyway I suppose) this film seems to do nothing but make matters worse (for me, if i were to try it out). Great review Fernando, and an even better bit of cautionary advise. Approach with caution, I supose.

  7. Great review. 🙂 Have to agree – saw this years ago and barely remember much other than being very bored. And I love Ethan Hawke. Raging Bull is much better than this movie. 😉

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