Great Expectations is a genuine Hollywood film, with all the essentials: gorgeous people, eccentric personalities, fantastic backdrops and excellent costumes. However, that basically summarizes the whole of this movie. The strength of Great Expectations is in its presentation; the weaknesses lie in its adapted plot, its erratic acting, and its general failure to convince.
It is an interesting and appealing idea to take an well-known classic and transform it into a modern-day story. It worked for Romeo and Juliet last year, and for A Thousand Acres, based on King Lear. In both cases, the basic plot is followed religiously. The remakes serve to provide insight into the original stories which would have otherwise gone unnoticed; they enhanced and expanded the plots in refreshing ways, making them somewhat more applicable for a 90s audience.
However, Great Expectations does nothing for Dickens’ original classic about good-hearted Pip who loses his way, becomes a snob, betrays his friends, but ends up alright in the end.
Instead, the movie focuses on the murky romance between Finn (modern-day Pip, played by Ethan Hawke) and Estella (Gwyneth Paltrow). This is the part of the book Dickens himself is the most ambiguous about, even choosing to write two different conclusions to their tortured relationship. The movie therefore only amplifies the confusion surrounding the relationship, providing no outlet of insight.
Certifiably, Hawke does an admirable job of playing the obsessed, emotionally overflowing Finn. However, the reasons he loves Estella are never explored; the only positive thing Finn ever utters about her (other than “I love Estella, I love Estella”) is she is beautiful.
Paltrow is indeed incredibly beautiful, albeit a little skinny, but her acting as the ice-cold, yet vulnerable, Estella is a little shaky. Though trying to portray an extremely conflicted person, heartless in action yet sensitive within, Paltrow instead reveals merely surface; instead of convincing us of her inner, deep turmoil, she hides her sadness too well.
In a scene obviously intended as a heartwrenching one (as was shown in the trailer that I have seen over seven times), Estella is telling Finn that “people are who they are, they don’t change.” Instead of crying, I felt pretty bored; Paltrow was simply unbelievable. Also, Finn’s outburst at this point seems out of place. I found myself wondering when and how he evolved to a suddenly wise-in-love man from being an obsessed little boy.
While Paltrow’s acting is a disappointment, Anne Bancroft, as the crazy, extremely wealthy Nora Dinsmore, is extremely creepy and strange, playing her part perfectly. Her make-up is caked on her face in thick streaks and magnified in large mirrors, further accentuating her age and eccentricity.
Dinsmore, abandoned at the wedding altar decades before, plots her revenge against all men by training Estella to break hearts (notably, Finn’s heart). On a smaller scale, however, she is merely a wacked-out old woman who derives pleasure from watching Finn and Estella dance around her house. Bancroft effectively portrays the conflicting loneliness and pure evil within Dinsmore’s character.
The modernization of the story inevitably leads to changes in details. The convict Finn helps as a young boy (Robert DeNiro) is given a sandwich instead of a meat pie. Joe, Finn’s devoted uncle, is a handyman. Finn and Estella grow up on the waterfront in Florida. Finn becomes a respected artist in New York City whereas Pip became a “gentleman” by 19th century standards. All of these alterations are passable and believable, and even enjoyable. The point at which these differences become unbearable is when the story, initially concerned with inner emotions, takes a turn and becomes unabashedly involved with sex.
I have no problem with sex in movies; I thought Romeo and Juliet handled its sex scenes exquisitely. However, the scenes in Great Expectations that dealt with sex were overdone.
They weren’t even particularly explicit, even the scene where Finn has his hand up Estella’s skirt for a good ten minutes or so. I had a problem watching Paltrow arch her beautiful swan-like neck from all different angles and positions for what seemed like an eternity. It seemed extremely redundant, as if the director (Alfonson Cuaron) was trying to make the scene sexy, and then went too far (I started to think she looked stupid, not sexy). My notes for this section of the movie is comprised of one word: skin.
Another scene in the movie which kind of shocked me was a risque scene where the young Estella kisses Finn while drinking from a water fountain. It was cute, I suppose, but I guess I’m not used to seeing ten-year-olds french-kissing.
The movie depended on the cheese-factor for its sentimental moments. Certain lines said were obviously going to be repeated. In an early scene, Dinsmore grabs Finn’s hand and presses it against her breast and says, “Do you know what this is? It’s my heart. And it’s broken.” Much later, Finn does the same to Dinsmore when he discovers he and Estella have been manipulated by Dinsmore from the very beginning. I admit that it’s a pretty good line, and the scene in which Finn says it is probably the best scene in the entire movie, but it’s still a little cheesy.
The good part about Great Expectations, however, is in its production. Paltrow and Hawke are extremely attractive, and its nice to look at them. Paltrow has an especially impressive wardrobe (mostly in green) that makes her look even more ethereal than usual; Hawke is the typical rebel in his black leather jacket and razored hair. Everyone enjoys seeing beautiful people, and this movie milks the most of that fact.
The sets are also unbelievably beautiful. The mansion Dinsmore and Estella live in, called Paradiso Perduto, is a fantasy-land frozen in time. The gardens are overgrown and fantastically vibrant with wildflowers and weeds. In the large open rooms, with light streaming in the windows, the house appears to glow.
Most impressive however, is Finn’s artwork. The actual artist, Francesco Clemente, drew some of the most fantastic portraits I have ever seen. Some, especially the ones done of Paltrow, are achingingly beautiful and full of life.
The direction was, like the sex scenes, overdone. Cuaron has good ideas. My favorite shot is when Finn was laying on his bed, and we see everything from his perspective as Estella walks into the room. Since his viewpoint is horizontal, Paltrow’s legs appear to take up the entire length of the movie screen.
However, Cuaron filmed too many slanted shots, so much that they eventually lost their effect on me, which is a shame; when done in a proper proportion with the rest of the filming, slanted shots can be extremely striking.
Great Expectations does have its good points. It is a lot of fun to just sit back and watch the scenery fly by. However, if you are looking for an intellectual movie, a movie that will really touch you, this is not the one.