Directed by Alfonso Cuaron. Starring Gwyneth Paltrow, Ethan Hawke, Anne Bancroft, Chris Cooper, Robert De Niro. (1998, R, 111 min.)
REVIEWED By Russell Smith, Fri., Jan. 30, 1998
At the risk of getting drummed out of the brethren of former English Lit majors, I have to say this radical makeover of Dickens' “beloved classic” (beloved by whom, I've always wondered) is much to my liking. The hardy story easily survives the change of setting from 19th-century England to the modern-day USA, and the liposuctioning of marginal plotlines and characters, two characteristics that make Dickens' work seem like, well, work to many modern readers, creates a feel of refinement, not truncation. In Mitch Glazer's screenplay, Dickens' Pip becomes Finnegan “Finn” Bell, played by Ethan Hawke. As in Dickens, the small-town lad helps a runaway convict (De Niro), whose act of gratitude becomes a major plot device years later. The other key influences in Finn's life are the demented millionaire Ms. Dinsmoor (Bancroft, having a blast with the classic Miss Havisham role) and her young niece, Estella (Paltrow from the teen years on). Hired by Dinsmoor to keep Estella company, the artistically gifted Finn falls in love with the icy but strangely vulnerable girl who, as Dinsmoor repeatedly warns him, is destined to break his heart. One day, a big city lawyer shows up in Finn's Florida coast hometown to inform him that a New York art patron he's never met wants to bankroll a major gallery show for him. Though properly skeptical, Finn says yes to the offer and heads off to chase a dream he'd never previously known he had. Familiarity with the book may scotch a few surprises for you, but Glazer changes enough of the major events and character relationships to keep you guessing. What's truly intriguing about this film, though, is the stylishness with which Cuaron (A Little Princess) reinvents Dickens' hoary, often-remade tale. This Great Expectations has a seductive, enchanting feel that has nothing to do with sweet, gauzy sentiments or calculatedly “magical” Hollywood imagery. In fact, it's downright strange much of the time, combining odd, disjointed encounters between the main characters with imaginative cinematography, risky performances by the leads, and an adrenaline-stoked pace to keep you in a giddy, unbalanced state. A terrific rock score assembled by Patrick Doyle adds charm and energy to the exhilarating scenes in which Finn conquers the Big Apple but never -- not quite -- the ethereal Estella. Though Cuaron slips a time or two during his stylistic highwire act, his refreshingly original movie, aided by Hawke's career-best acting in the lead role, is a joy to watch. Of further interest is the long nude scene by Paltrow that had me, red-blooded male that I am, aching to place her upon a bed of hibiscus petals, tilt her head back gently… and feed her rashers of slab bacon until those anorexic collarbones started to soften up a bit. Gwyn, love: If you don't get help from Charter Lane, please get it from someone. You're starting to scare us.