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Great Expectations

January 9, 2014

Great Expectations (1998)
Director: Alfonso Cuarón
Actors: Ethan Hawke, Gwyneth Paltrow, Anne Bancroft

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Synopsis: Young Finn (Jeremy James Kissner/Ethan Hawke) grows up in a sleepy, Florida Gulf fishing town with his uncle Joe (Chris Cooper). Finn becomes obsessed by the cold Estella (Raquel Beaudene, Gwyneth Paltrow) he encounters at the residence of local eccentric, Ms Dinsmoor (Anne Bancroft). When Finn is set up to become an artist in NYC, he assumes Ms Dinsmoor is the benefactor, but another figure from his childhood has a more disquieting hand in his fortune.

Review: Alfonso Cuarón infuses Great Expectations with his customary pizzazz and visual élan, and in many respects, his transportation of Charles Dickens’ quintessential Victorian parable from 19th century England to 1980s Florida/New York City works very well, and certainly makes for a curio of film pictorially.

Having spent a lot of time in Florida myself, the transference of Pip/Finn’s locus from the melancholic marshes of Thames Estuary Kent to the Floridian Gulf Coast is an excellent choice. The sweaty, Southern gothic air, and especially the decaying, florid, colonial mansion of Miss Havisham/Ms Dinsmoor proves exactly the right canvas for the story’s fantastical musings on fate and fortune to play out.

Where the film fails is in its clear commercial proclivity to centre the whole narrative trajectory around a fairly asinine updating of the Pip-Estella love-match into a soppy, contemporary metropolitan romance. The whole point of Great Expectations (the novel) is that Pip holds Estella up as the unattainable, the object of his desire, the symbol for his striving and “expectations”, but here, Cuarón lets boy get girl on numerous occasions throughout the film, dissipating any tension as to whether Estella really cares for Finn. This therefore relegates the other important characters and themes (which are actually Great Expectations’ major strength) to a sideshow – especially the return of Robert DeNiro’s Magwitch/Lustig, which is trotted out very late in proceedings and concluded in a silly ‘wiseguy’, subway sequence. At least Anne Bancroft’s imaginative updating of the potentially pantomime character of Ms Dinsmoor honours the more creative and cerebral aspects of Cuarón’s adaptation. (January 2014)

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