Review by Fernando Rafael of Commited to Celluloid
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.
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.
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!
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.