Friday, April 27, 2012

Great Expectations (1998 film)

Originally Written and Posted at on 5/13/04 w/ Additional Edits & Revisions.

Based on the novel by Charles Dickens, Great Expectations is the story of a young boy's encounter with an escaped convict as he would come of age when he becomes the playmate a rich, reclusive woman's daughter. He later becomes successful through a secret benefactor as he tries to woo the girl he knew as child. Directed by Alfonso Cuaron and screenplay by Mitch Glazer, with additional work by Cuaron and narration written by an un-credited David Mamet. The film is a modern take on Dickens' story that is told through perspective of a man as he tries to court this cold-hearted woman he had known since childhood. Starring Ethan Hawke, Gwyneth Paltrow, Hank Azaria, Chris Cooper, Anne Bancroft, and Robert de Niro. The modern version of Great Expectations is a visually-lush but very clumsy adaptation from Alfonso Cuaron.

A young 10-year old boy named Finn (Jeremy Kissner) is drawing fishes in his Florida home where he encounters an escaped convict named Lustig (Robert de Niro) who is on the run. Lustig wants Finn to give him some things or else he'll kill him as Finn returns home with food, pills, and alcohol later that night as Finn later hides Lustig from the cops behind a buoy. Though Lustig would later be captured, the event would have a great impact on Finn's life as he returns home to his sister Maggie (Kim Dickens) and her kind husband Joe (Chris Cooper). When Joe decides to go to the tarnished Paradiso Perduto mansion for work, Finn goes with him where he takes a look into the house where he meets a young girl named Estella (Raquel Beaudene) who is the niece of the mansion's reclusive owner Miss Dinsmoor (Anne Bancroft). Joe receives some money as Miss Dinsmoor calls Maggie wanting Finn to be his niece's playmate every Saturday. There, Finn is encouraged to do his drawings while taking dance lessons with Estella under Miss Dinsmoor's guidance.

Years later, Finn (Ethan Hawke) and Estella (Gwyneth Paltrow) continue their time as Miss Dinsmoor suggests that Finn should accompany Estella to a party. Finn is excited but Estella isn't as the two ditch the party for a night out where Finn deals with her sudden cold behavior. After Estella leaves Florida, Finn is hurt as he gives up painting and help out Joe in the fishing trade until a Manhattan art representative named Jerry Ragno (Josh Mostel) has discovered his art and offers him a place in New York City to live and work. Finn isn't sure until an art dealer named Erica Thrall (Nell Campbell) discovers Finn's work through an anonymous benefactor as he takes the offer. Moving to NYC, Finn meets Thrall as he re-discovers his passion for art where he encounters Estella at Central Park where he learns she's engaged to a wealthy man named Walter Pane (Hank Azaria). Estella shows up at his apartment one day to pose for his work as Finn remains unsure if she's playing with his head. Though Finn manages to impress Ragno and Thrall, Walter also visits where he admits to having a hard time figuring Estella out. Finn decides to pursue her as things become more complicated through her cold behavior.

With Finn finally set to have his first art gallery presentation, he starts to seduced by success and his new lifestyle as he waits for Estella to arrive. Instead, Joe makes a visit where he feels lost in this new world as Finn tries to understand Joe's alienation while he wonders where Estella is. At Estella's apartment, he receives a surprise visit from Miss Dinsmoor who reveals that Estella is left as she feels responsible for the way Estella has behaved due to her own past as she had been left in the altar by a man years ago. Lost in his feelings for Estella, Finn meets a mysterious man from his past as he makes a big discovery about why he's successful forcing him to come to terms with his love for Estella.

The problem with most film adaptations of classic novels isn't just character omissions and missing storylines, but also the way it is presented, particularly on modern day adaptations. The film's biggest weakness is in Mitch Glazer's sup-par script, which really takes out a lot of the emotional depth and social aspect of Charles Dickens' novel in favor of something more appealing for an audience. Plus, the character development in some of the leads aren't as great and with the exception of the Lustig and Joe characters, they come across in a very unsympathetic way. The screenplay is probably the reason why Alfonso Cuaron has expressed some frustration towards the project. Instead of relying on its weak script, he had to rely on the film for its cinematic quality and lush, elegant cinematography of his longtime collaborator Emmanuel Lubezki.

Cuaron still does bring out some fine directing moments in the film's first thirty minutes involving the kids while having some fine dramatic scenes with Hawke, Paltrow, and the rest of the cast. Despite the script, Cuaron brings in a fine directing approach to the film as Lubezki shines with his approach to sunlight and the Floridian waters reflecting sun as well as his use of green colors and the sunny look of New York City as Lubezki is one of the best cinematographers in the past 10 years. Helping Cuaron and Lubezki on the film's gorgeous, dreamy visuals are production designer Tony Burrough and art director John Kasarda for its exotic, greenish look of Florida and the street, art world of New York City. Another brilliant element in its relation to art is the drawings and paintings by Francesco Clemente that are well drawn in a lovely style with its simple format of shapes and colors.

The film's music also plays well by its score from composer Patrick Doyle as it has a dramatic, dreamy tone with its string arrangements and orchestra. The film's soundtrack is as equally as strong with its diverse acts that include Tori Amos, Scott Weiland, Chris Cornell (in his first solo recording after leaving Soundgarden), Pulp, Mono, Iggy Pop, and the Grateful Dead. The only weak spot in the soundtrack is the various versions of Besame Mucho where by the third play, it becomes really annoying.

While the smaller roles from Kim Dickens, Josh Mostel, Erica Thrall, and a surprisingly restrained performance from Hank Azaria are fine to watch in their small performances. The roles of the younger Finn and Estella played by Jeremy James Kissner and Raquel Beaudene are well-played, especially in their individual moments as they carry a fresh-faced innocence and chemistry that plays well with Kissner as the more innocent Finn and Beaudene as the cold Estella. Of the supporting cast, no one delivers a finer performance better than Chris Cooper as the loveable Joe. Cooper brings a charismatic performance of a man who isn't very bright but knows how to do the right thing and he comes off in a very sympathetic and loveable way as throughout the whole film, we get to love the guy even if he's a yokel.

While Robert De Niro doesn't deliver a groundbreaking performance in comparison to his many film roles, he was excellent as the convict Lustig as he starts off very mean but in a very sympathetic way. De Niro comes off as a man, who knows what he's done to land him in jail was wrong as he found something to live for from this young boy and De Niro brings a rare, fatherly-like performance from him as he shines early and later on in the film. Anne Bancroft delivers a fine yet bizarre performance as Miss Dinsmoor as she seems to have fun dancing to Besame Mucho a lot as she comes off in a very likeable way but as the film progresses and we learn of her flaws, there isn't any real sympathy to her in the end in the same way the novel and previous film adaptations had.

In the leads, Ethan Hawke and Gwyneth Paltrow, unfortunately don't carry the same chemistry that their young principle actors carried early on in the film. There's no real spark in the relationship and whenever they get together, it feels somewhat contrived as really, you have neither to pull for. Hawke is excellent by himself or with De Niro and Cooper while unfortunately when it comes to the subject of Paltrow's Estella, he comes off as this pathetic lovesick puppy. Paltrow is sexy in some of her scenes but overall; her character is clearly the most confusing, as we're not sure if she is really in love with Finn or just playing with him. In that context, her character really comes off as unlikable and unsympathetic as Paltrow doesn't give her character a really center in this uneven performance.

Alfonso Cuaron's version of Great Expectations is a good although lackluster film due to a very weak script and the underwhelming performances of Ethan Hawke and Gwyneth Paltrow. Despite some wonderful supporting work from Anne Bancroft, Chris Cooper, and Robert de Niro along with Emmanuel Lubezki's entrancing cinematography. It's a film that is more style than substance that tries to give Charles Dickens' novel a modern feel to appeal to a younger audience. Instead, it barely scrapes the surface of what Dickens had intended with his story. In the end, Great Expecations is a worthwhile but unremarkable film from Alfonso Cuaron.

© thevoid99 2012


Anonymous said...

Other than some beautiful set designs and camera work, this film has nothing else to really offer other than a bunch of shallow performances, a shallow story, and a shallow adaptation of a Darwin book. Basically, Hollywood should just stay away from Darwin! Good review Steve.

thevoid99 said...

I think you mean Dickens, not Darwin.

The only reason I think it got made was because 20th Century Fox found success with Baz Luhrman's version of Romeo & Juliet and thought, "Hey, why don't we do a new version of Great Expectations and present for our young, modern audience?" That is what I think happened in that meeting.

I agree that it is shallow though it had some decent supporting performances.

Unknown said...

I love reading your reviews because you put so much insight into not just the movie itself but the production as well. A great read

I remeber the soundtrack to this more than the movie itself

Chip Lary said...

I didn't get much out of this version. Years later I finally saw the 1940s version and I liked it a lot more.

thevoid99 said...

@theVern-Thanks. I think the soundtrack is more memorable than the film. Largely because it had some great stuff from Tori Amos (when she used to be good), Mono, Pulp, and Scott Weiland.

@ChipLary-The version of Great Expectations that I've seen prior to this film was a late 80s TV mini-series version with Anthony Hopkins and John Rhys-Davies that I really liked. The 1998 version was just very flat and superficial due to its focus on the romance and not much emphasis on Pip/Finn's rise to success.

s. said...

Wonderful review! I thought it was a kind of movie that can appeal to modern day audiance - it has gorgeouss soundtrack and execution. I enoyed movie a lot but mostly due to amazing visual side.

thevoid99 said...

@Sati-It tried a lot to play to that audience but I think it didn't do enough to make the story much more interesting.

I still watch it because of Chivo's cinematography. The dude is pretty much my favorite DP working today. Anything he did with Cuaron and Terrence Malick is pretty much top-notch work.