Magical or hokey, depending on your point of view, Alfonso Cuarón’s new version of Great Expectations is another reinvented classic for the age of MTV. Of course, this version bears little resemblance to the original Dickens. Even some of the names have been changed. God help me, I kind of enjoyed it despite its failings, although I certainly wouldn’t recommend it.
For the first act, Cuarón envisions a timeless Florida landscape, where young Finnegan Bell (Jeremy Kissner) wades in the shorewaters of the Atlantic, eyeballing the seagulls and scratching evocative line drawings into his sketchpad. It’s in this otherworldly environment that the lower-class Finn meets the highbrow Estella (Raquel Beaudene), golden-tressed daughter of daffy Ms. Dinsmoor (Anne Bancroft), an aging spinster who dances around her decaying mansion to the strains of “Besame Mucho” and who pays Finn’s Uncle Joe to bring him over from time to time for entertainment. He can’t dance for her, but he can draw, and his sketches of Estella are ghostly and oddly compelling.
Years go by, and Estella and Finn (now Gwyneth Paltrow and Ethan Hawke) grow into young adulthood, when Estella will begin giving Finn a long, haunting lesson in the nature of unrequited love and the distance between the classes. After the first of a long series of pre-coitus interruptus heartbreaks for Finn, Estella abruptly decides that she has “a million things to do” and walks out of the room. Finn takes rejection like a gentleman, but his disappointment is heightened when he next calls on her and is told by Dinsmoor that she has gone abroad for years of study. (“Didn’t she say goodbye?”) Talk about heartbreak — Finn loses his will to create, gives up drawing, and resigns himself to life as a fisherman.
Flash forward a few years, until a mysterious lawyer (his name, we’re told, is Italian for “spider”) visits Finn with plane tickets and pocket money to send him to New York. One of the many galleries to which he had sent slides in the past is interested in hosting his one-man show, he’s told, and will put him up in Manhattan to work. When Dinsmoor informs him helpfully that Estella is living in New York City, Finn gets on a plane.
He gets back off in what must be the Manhattan of young idealists, where the woman of your dreams materializes at a downtown fountain, where handsome artists congregate in posh social clubs to share stories about Michelangelo and de Kooning, where you can storm into a Chinese restaurant and steal a woman away from her betrothed by asking her to dance and then waltzing her out into the rain-slicked streets outside. In one particularly audacious shot, the suggestion is that you can gaze into the sky and perhaps see the face of your beloved, whisked away from you on a jet.
Actually, the suggestion may only be that you could imagine you saw that. This version of Great Expectations anticipates qualms about verisimilitude early on, when Finn declares in voiceover that he’s not going to tell the story as it happened, but as he remembers it. Thus you can’t really complain that Robert DeNiro must have held his breath for, oh, 10 minutes prior to the opening scene when he jumps out of a watery hiding place.
Hardly a scene transpires that doesn’t feature Finn, since the story is his and only his to tell — but Hawke can’t quite invest it with the pathos that’s required. He’s flat and emotionally distant. Finn’s been emotionally victimized by Estella, true, but Hawke puts Finn’s emotions at too far a remove. When Finn asks Estella, “What’s it like to feel nothing?” you may figure that he’d be one to know. Paltrow plays her own role more or less the only way she can, and she makes a radiant, plausibly maddening seductress.
Interestingly, many reviewers have also clucked disapprovingly about Paltrow’s “nude scene,” where Estella sits to have her portrait painted by Finn — it turns out to be just another in the long series of teases perpetrated by her character, and, to be honest, it’s not much of a “nude scene.” It is, however, pretty damn sexy, not least because Francesco Clemente’s more revealing drawings, for which Paltrow actually modeled, are suitably dynamite. I was initially put off by Cuaróns selection of turgid rock music as aural accompaniment for this and an earlier erotic encounter, but it’s appropriate on a rock-and-roll level — it suggests a hormone-induced state of creative ecstasy that can only go flaccid once the needle hits the playout groove.
Of course, it begs the question: Why a rock-and-roll update of Great Expectations? At least the bold colors and noises of Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet made a kind of garish sense, tapping and exploiting the most theatrical possibilities of Shakespearean melodrama. But the Dickens novel hardly lends itself to noise and spectacle, and the movie puts a lot of distance between itself and its esteemed lineage. My guess is that Hollywood can only screw up its nerves to finance a picture like this if it has the empty cachet of an English Lit brand name behind it. Both Hollywood and Cuarón, then, should learn that Dickens is long in his grave; he can’t help make this a better movie.
Unlike the original Dickens, Cuarón’s Great Expectations is frustratingly lightweight, with no real bearing on what any of this beautiful stuff really means on a human level. Every time Cuarón has a chance to define the emotional heart of the story on its own terms, the movie just flits blandly, almost elliptically, through the scene. When Finn finally declares his emotional ruin, he barely seems fazed. When Bancroft lets loose near the end of the film, the moment has no power because there’s been no buildup to her outburst. All these crucial emotional payoffs are leached of momentum by Cuarón’s perfunctory handling of his material and, worse, his characters. Like Finn’s love affair with Estella, Great Expectations is all modulation and no climax. Cuarón serves up a great, glossy New York City, the stuff of lovers’ fantasies — and he even manages to make Central Park look new again. Sensing an unhappy ending, you keep waiting for the gloss to come off, like so much varnish. Alas, Great Expectations is all varnish. C+