Don’t expect greatness from “Great Expectations.”
An updating of Charles Dickens’ 1861 literary classic, the new film takes some of the characters, themes and plot devices from the novel and attempts to give them a modern spin. But after watching this movie, I wish that the filmmakers had been more faithful or simply had started from scratch.
What they have here is a muddle.
Ethan Hawke (“Gattaca”) and Gwyneth Paltrow (“Emma”) star as Finn and Estella, lovers who meet as children on Florida’s Gulf Coast and are reunited as young adults in New York. While the emotionally distant Estella is born to wealth and privilege, the vulnerable Finn eventually acquires both through his artistic talent and the intervention of a mysterious benefactor.
The movie’s basic problem is either that Dickens’ story doesn’t make sense in modern terms or that the filmmakers weren’t able to arrive at contemporary equivalents for the author’s ideas. What’s missing here are comprehensible reasons for the actions of the characters that would truly bring them into the present.
Estella seems to love Finn, but it’s hard to tell. She spends much of the movie rejecting him in favor of someone else, whom she does not appear to love. But it’s hard to tell about that, too.
To reveal any more would be to reveal too much. Let’s just say that the film leaves an awful lot to the imagination.
Without sensible motivations, Hawke and Paltrow (especially Paltrow) have trouble creating coherent characters. All they have is their charm, and that is not enough.
Robert De Niro doesn’t have much more to work with in his extended cameo as an escaped convict, but, somehow, he’s fun to watch anyway. As Estella’s weird aunt, Anne Bancroft seems to be having a good time although, again, it is hard to say why.
It is also tough to fathom why the filmmakers chose to update Dickens’ novel in the first place.
My best guess is that they were trying to repeat the success of “Clueless” (1995), which modernized Jane Austen’s “Emma,” and “William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet” (1996), which revamped the Bard’s classic. But the former film had a captivatingly casual wit and the latter had, at least, Shakespeare’s poetry.
My expectations for “Great Expectations” had been elevated somewhat by the filmmakers’ previous work.
Mitch Glazer, who wrote the script, also worked on the 1988 “Scrooged,” a more successful updating of a Dickens classic (“A Christmas Carol”).
The director of the new film is Alfonso Cuaron, whose “A Little Princess” was one of the best films of 1995.
Cuaron’s latest effort is blessed with a lushness that recalls his earlier movie. But the emptiness of the conception finally makes “Great Expectations” just seem arty.
No scene exemplifies this better than the one in which Finn draws a nude portrait of Estella. Meant to be romantic and somewhat comic, it veers off into unintentional camp.
Besides, after similar sequences in “Titanic” and “As Good as It Gets,” I have to wonder if this sort of scene has become obligatory.
It’s worth mentioning that the amount of nudity in that scene in “Great Expectations” seems precisely calibrated and slyly limited: It’s as if the filmmakers were trying to titillate the teens while at the same time leaving open the possibility that high-school English teachers won’t be too embarrassed to assign the film to students who are reading Dickens.
This new “Great Expectations” does, I suppose, beat the Cliffs Notes in the entertainment department. But that’s not saying much, is it?
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: “Great Expectations” Location: Newport, Spokane Valley Mall, Showboat Credits: Directed by Alfonso Cuaron, starring Ethan Hawke, Gwyneth Paltrow, Anne Bancroft, Robert De Niro Running time: 1:51 Rating: R