I didn't exactly have great expectations for Great Expectations, Alfonso Cuaron's cinematic adaptation of what many people consider Charles Dickens' greatest novel. To make matters worse, I just rewatched David Lean's 1946 film version, which many people (myself included) consider the greatest Dickens adaptation of them all. Next to Lean's, Cuaron's seems less an adaptation than a desecration--another literary classic tossed onto the pop-culture bonfire. Cuaron prefers to call the movie, which is set in 1980s America, an "elaboration." I'd be willing to split the difference and call it a "belaboration." Cuaron doesn't have many new ideas, but he sure does hammer away at them. We open on Florida's Gulf Coast, where Pip, renamed Finn (Jeremy James Kissner), plays in the shallows and makes drawings of fish. One day, a fishy-looking character leaps out of the water and grabs Finn by the throat. It's Robert De Niro's Magwitch, renamed Lustig. (At this point in the movie, I suddenly had the urge to change my own name.) Finn helps Lustig, an escaped prisoner, get away; and someday, unbeknownst to Pip, Lustig will return the favor. Meanwhile, Finn starts hanging out at Paradiso Perduto, a giant architectural cobweb inhabited by Miss Havisham, renamed Ms. Dinsmoor (Anne Bancroft), and Estella (Raquel Beaudene), who, for reasons known only to the filmmakers, is allowed to remain Estella. Perhaps no actress could do full justice to Miss Havisham, literature's most vengeful vestal virgin. But Bancroft, that old salty ham, nearly gives herself a hernia trying. With pounds of mascara running down her face (you'd run, too), Ms. Dinsmoor looks like Norma Desmond after being left out in the rain, but she moves like a 90-year-old Mrs. Robinson, still trying to get young men to jump her bones. (They're all that's left to jump.) It's a wonderfully trashy performance, so bad it's good. And half the fun of the movie is watching Ethan Hawke and Gwyneth Paltrow--the grown-up Finn and Estella--try to find a way of sharing a scene with her. I would have put on a fright wig and a clown nose. Finn becomes madly in love with Estella, just as Ms. Dinsmoor planned, and Estella alternately comes on to him and leaves him in the lurch, as if her life's mission were to bring him to his knees. "I want you inside me," she finally tells Finn, tossing her Donna Karan outfit--and the movie's few remaining Victorian proprieties--aside. They're in Finn's fabulous SoHo loft. Thanks to a mysterious benefactor, he now plays in the shallows of the New York art world. And his paintings of Estella, reportedly done by '80s gallery star Francesco Clemente, are shallow indeed. Nevertheless, the love scenes, given a buttery sheen by Cuaron, are the best things in the movie.
Built like a stork (okay, a supermodel), and with lips that curl downward, as if the world will never measure up, Paltrow is the essence of New York swank--one of those women who might as well be wearing a signboard that says, "You can look, but you better not touch." Estella's signboard says, "You can touch, but you better not feel." To tell you the truth, I had trouble figuring out why Finn was so hung up on her. But hung up he is. Alas, Hawke, who was so impressive in Richard Linklater's Before Sunrise, must have been handed the script on the first day of shooting. In their scenes together, Bancroft seems to be scaring the dickens out of him. Of course, she'd scare the dickens out of Dickens.