Great Expectations (1998)

Film review: Great Expectations (1998), directed by Alfonso Cuarón

Another adaptation of Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations premieres today, but here’s a modern day version of the story, from 1998 …

Artistic boy Finnegan Bell (Jeremy James Kissner) lives somewhere in Florida with his sister and uncle Joe (Chris Cooper). One day, he encounters an escaped convict (Robert De Niro), forcing him to help him get to safety. This doesn’t go entirely to plan, and Lustig, the Death Row prisoner, is recaptured.

When Finn accompanies Uncle Joe to sort out the garden of a rich eccentric, Ms Dinsmoor (Anne Bancroft), Finn gets offered to be a playmate for Dinsmoor’s niece, Estella (Raquel Beaudene). Estella doesn’t seem too keen on her new friend, but sits for a portrait for him.

Years later, Finn (Ethan Hawke) and Estella (Gwyneth Paltrow) are all grown up. Estella has gone to live in New York with her fiance (Hank Azaria) and a lawyer tells Finn how there’s a gallery wanting to showcase his artwork. Finn gets an all expenses paid trip to New York, is introduced to society, and Estella … well, she still has games to play.

This feels like a stylistic movie. The camera angles seem very deliberate, and there are plenty of close-ups that feel just a little too intimate and suggestive. I’m not exactly well-versed in Charles Dickens, and the only previous experience of Great Expectations was last year’s BBC miniseries. Here, of course, the setting has been completely changed, and the circumstances.

Finn (Pip) is not sent to The City to become a gentleman, but to be an artist. Lustig (Magwitch) is a an escaped convict, but one who was touched by a little boy’s drawings. Dinsmoor (Haversham) is still a rich lady who lost it when she was spurned by her fiancé all those years ago. Estella is still the  trained heartbreaker. Other roles might be switched around or removed, but you can very much recognise the origin of the story.

Does it work? I thought so, but then I don’t have some sentimental attachment to Dickens’ works. If you do, I can’t say whether or not you’ll enjoy this film, but if you find Great Expectations depressing and tedious normally, maybe this will make you change your mind, ever so slightly. It even ends on a promising note! (Perhaps the original does as well, but I don’t seem to remember anything like that.)

Nonetheless, it’s still a weird story with weird characters that aren’t particularly likable. The young Finn is a nice lad, and while he’s still a nice lad when he’s older, he transforms into a complete dick by being in the city. Estella might be a victim of her scheming, bitter aunt, but I can’t sympathise with her very much. The only decent person in the film is Uncle Joe, and maybe Estella’s fiancé.

Great Expectations is a difficult story to enjoy, but maybe the modern setting helped. It didn’t help me think it’s the best film ever, because I don’t think it is, but at least it wasn’t dull. Finn’s paintings are not to my personal taste, but on the whole, that he’s an artist works in today’s day and age, when we don’t exactly have “gentlemen” like we did in Dickens’ day.

If only I could shake the feeling of invading the characters’ personal space.

Awkward.

3.6 out of 5 studio apartments.

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