Do you know what that is?
No, it's my heart... and it's broken.
"Great Expectations" is the latest cinematic incarnation of what is considered Charles Dickens' darkest novel, and despite the contemporary setting, it remains true to the themes of the Victorian-era romance: unrequited love, the conquering of class barriers, and the mysteries of fate and destiny. And though it is saddled with an uninspiring script that lacks the emotional beats requisite for a romance based on such rich source material, Alfonso Cuaron has crafted an elegant and picturesque fairy-tale, a credit to his skill as a director.
The very young and very poor protagonist, Finnegan Bell (Jeremy James Kissner), is first seen at the age of eight, living in a quiet Florida fishing village with his older sister (who runs off one night and is never seen from again) and her boyfriend, Uncle Joe (Chris Cooper, last seen in "Lone Star"). One afternoon, while sketching the fish in the shallow Gulf waters, an escaped convict (Robert De Niro, showing considerably more energy than his recent outings in "Jackie Brown" and "Wag the Dog") rises out of the water and grabs hold of the boy, coercing him to aid his escape from the law. Finn shows the convict compassion, an act that is not forgotten, even after they make their separate ways when Finn's rowboat is stumbled upon by a police boat.
What do you think of her?
I think she's a snob.
She's very pretty.
I don't think she likes me.
Not long after, while helping his Uncle Joe to do some gardening work at the verdant and decadent Paradiso Perduto, a crumbling and overgrown mansion owned by the flamboyantly-eccentric Ms. Dinsmoor (played to the hilt by Anne Bancroft), Finn spies a beautiful young girl with flowing blonde hair-- though the meeting is brief, he is clearly enamored by her. Soon he is called out regularly to the Paradiso Perduto, to serve as a dance partner for and to draw the portrait of Ms. Dinsmoor's niece, Estrella (Raquel Beaudene), the girl that Finn saw in the garden. Dinsmoor watches with delight as she sees the young boy fall for her lovely niece, whom she is molding into a cold temptress that will break the hearts of men, a vengeful act borne from her own tragic abandonment at the altar many years before. It is here that Finn and Estrella share their first moment of intimacy, a drink at a water fountain teeming with charged eroticism.
The years pass, and we catch up to Finn (Ethan Hawke, whose flat performance is punctuated by the rare display of brilliance) and Estrella (the ever-radiant Gwyneth Paltrow) in their teenage years. Finn continues his regular Saturday appointments at the Dinsmoor residence, and though it seems the couple have become close, Estrella, having learned her lessons well from her aunt, leaves Finn heartbroken and disappears overseas. Finn, disillusioned by Estrella's rejection, gives up his painting and begins working full-time for Uncle Joe on his fishing boat. Another seven years pass by, and Finn receives an invitation from a New York gallery to do a one-man show, seemingly arranged by Ms. Dinsmoor, who urges Finn to take the opportunity, because 'Estrella is in New York'.
Finn moves to New York and while he is building up his portfolio from his modest Manhattan digs, he chances to run into Estrella again, during a fateful drink at a water fountain. However, this time, Estrella is engaged to the well-heeled Walter (Hank Azaria). Will Finn find success on the road to fulfilling his dreams? Will Estrella's cold heart melt and recognize the true love she has for Finn? Or is Finn being set-up for heartbreak and disappointment again? And wasn't Robert De Niro in this movie?
Screenwriter Mitch Glazer is no stranger to updating the works of Dickens for the screen-- his first effort was taking Dickens' "A Christmas Carol" and turning it into a Bill Murray vehicle ("Scrooged"). For GE, much of the intricacy and detail of Dickens' novel has been trimmed, and the result is a prototypical rags-to-riches romance, that offers nothing new to the genre in terms of narrative novelty. No, the magic of this film stems from Cuaron's direction, proof-positive to an assertion I have held for a number of years-- that a skilled director can take any material and transform it into a good film (give any Pauly Shore movie to a good director, like Atom Egoyan, and something decent will come out of it). Cuaron's mesmerizing visual style, last seen in "The Little Princess", is enchanting as we are taken on a tour of the dreamy surrealism of Finn's world. Never have the dirty streets of Manhattan or the New York subway system looked so pleasing to the eye, and a stunning claustrophobic cocktail party sequence, where a bewildered Finn is in search of Estrella, is worth the price of admission alone. Though to some it may seem pretentious with its firm basis in the MTV-school-of-filmmaking, the images that Cuaron captures with his cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki are stunning, and the kinetic camera work keeps your attention, even through the slow stretches. And couple all this with Tony Burrough's lush production design, which uses the color green as a recurring motif, you have one beautifully-crafted film.
"Great Expectations" is not a landmark film, and there is not enough on-screen chemistry between Hawke and Paltrow to provide enough dramatic intensity to the proceedings. Yet still, it is a work of beauty to behold, a film where form outpaces function.