Great Expectations Review

“I’m not going to tell the story the way it happened. I’m going to tell it the way I remember it.”

Great Expectations was Dickens’s favourite amongst his own novels, and has been filmed and televised many times. The definitive version must surely be David Lean’s 1946 film. So if you are to make yet another version of this story, what do you do to make it fresh? For screenwriter Mitch Glazer (who has a record with Dickensian updates, having also written Scrooged, of which the less said the better) the answer was to write a modern-day version of the story.

Instead of Victorian England, we begin in the late 1970s in the Florida Key. Instead of Pip, our hero is called Finnegan Bell, Finn for short. We first meet him at age ten, living with his sister and her boyfriend. One day he’s confronted by Arthur Lustig (Robert De Niro), a wanted criminal, and Finn helps him escape. Later, Finn is summoned by Ms Dinsmoor (Anne Bancroft), a rich but highly eccentric woman who lives in a ruined house called Paradiso Perduto nursing a broken heart. (Paradiso Perduto, along with Miss Minchin’s School in A Little Princess, shows that Alfonso Cuarón – and his DP and production designer – know how to film large, imposing houses so that they become characters in the narrative…something that must have stood him in good stead for Hogwarts.)

At Paradiso Perduto, Finn meets Ms Dinsmoor’s adopted daughter Estella, the same age as him. Ms Dinsmoor warns Finn that Estella will break his heart, but he falls in love with her regardless. Flash forward ten years, and we’re in New York. Finn is trying to establish himself as an artist. He meets Estella again, who is engaged to be married. Finn still has his hopes, but realises that Estella is out of his league. And who is Finn’s mysterious benefactor?

Following A Little Princess, many people including myself wanted to see what Alfonso Cuarón would make next. Great Expectations was the result, and it’s a film which divides audiences down the middle. Either you can connect to this modern-day update of Dickens or you can’t. If you can, this is a very stylish, well acted film that is quite faithful to the spirit if not the letter of the original. (It’s not a version for children, though, the 15 certificate being due to language and some sexual content.) Also, by shifting the film to Florida and New York, Glazer is able to find a convincing equivalent to the class differences, especially between Pip/Finn and Estella, that are important to the original story. Another plus is that this is a rare Hollywood film to give a convincing picture of the modern-day art world. Too often we get films like Titanic, which asks us to believe that our hero’s pavement-artist efforts would impress a woman who keeps a Picasso in her cabin.

This isn’t really an actor’s picture, though the four leads all turn in solid performances. Ethan Hawke is certainly very likeable as Finn, but you can sense why he has never really become a major star: that certain vital spark isn’t quite there. Gwyneth Paltrow is perfect casting as the remote, beautiful but teasing ice queen Estella, a woman brought up to break men’s hearts. In smaller roles, Bancroft and De Niro are both very good. So is Chris Cooper as Finn’s Uncle Joe, pleased for his success but also aware – in one of the best scenes in the film – that as an unsophisticate from the sticks he’s showing him up in the eyes of his fashionable New York friends. Also noteworthy are Jeremy James Kissner and Raquel Beaudene as the ten-year-old versions of Finn and Estella. Technically, this film is first rate, with strong contributions from Cuarön’s regular DP Emmanuel Lubezki and production designer Tony Burrough.

Great Expectations is transferred to DVD anamorphically in its original ratio of 2.35:1. The picture quality is very good indeed, sharp and colourful with strong blacks and a lack of artefacting. As with A Little Princess, the colour green is a recurring motif. The transfer copes with the lush foliage of the Florida swamp, the harder colours of New York, not to mention the soft greys of an early morning on the subway.

The soundtrack is in Dolby Digital 5.1, and its an immersive effort, mostly giving the surrounds over to Patrick Doyle’s score and some ambient effects. The dialogue is well balanced and always audible.

There are twenty-two chapter stops and a range of subtitle options. The DVD is encoded for Regions 2 and 4.

The only extra is the trailer, which is non-anamorphic 1.85:1 with Dolby Digital 2.0 sound and running 1:49. It certainly pitches the film as a love story more than anything else.

Great Expectations has been somewhat neglected, not having the critical success of A Little Princess nor the critical and popular success of Cuarón’s next film, Y tu Mamá También. Certainly Dickens purists will hate it, and the David Lean version remains definitive. But this film still has a lot to offer and you could do well to pick it up on DVD, especially as it can be had very cheaply.

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Last updated: 15/06/2018 14:55:50

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