Written by: Mitch Glazer
Starring: Ethan Hawke, Gwyneth Paltrow, Hank Azaria, Chris Cooper, Anne Bancroft, Robert De Niro
Works of art find success not only in the content of the story but also as a result of combining the setting and circumstances surrounding the story. The setting provides context and adapting it outside of the original story may result in a particular loss of connection of the meaning. Something the 1998 adaptation of Great Expectations struggled with even with a star-studded cast and one of my favorite living directors at the helm.
Growing up in an unideal living situation, Finn (Ethan Hawke) strikes up a friendship with the young Estella (Gwyneth Paltrow). Their friendship grows and a romance strikes between them despite Finn receiving a warning that he will fall in love with Estella will only get his heart broken. After not seeing each other for years, and Finn now living in New York, they meet once again.
On paper, Great Expectations had the making for greatness with it taking on subject material written by Charles Dickens along with the directorial lens of Alfonso Cuarón in order to bring it to life. However, despite these facts and the cast involved, this adaptation does not have the same soul many of the director’s works typically thrive on. In the end, it appears to be a mismatch of talents to bring this story to life and it never feels like a good fit.
Finn, as a character, receives plenty of sympathy, and rightfully so as he finds himself in a fairly putrid living situation even with the adults trying their very best. He somehow then meets the criminal Arthur Lustig (Robert De Niro), which would be traumatizing for anyone, but especially at the age of a child. Nothing but tragedy and Estella apparently has the opposite experience. Almost gliding through life attracting the attention of everyone around her without much friction, the different lives they have both lived makes for quite the pairing. A wonderful passion brews but each time it seemingly comes to fruition, it gets cut off. Rooting for them to come together propels this story forward even when they take long breaks from each other, and this very foundation never truly sets and explains why this adaptation never really sticks the landing.
In the time they spend separately, we just get Finn’s perspective. We get to see the young man grow up and rise from his humble beginning to living in New York thanks to a benefactor to practice his art. He now lives a more enjoyable lifestyle and gets to establish himself in a new way and on an equal playing field. On the other hand, we do not see Estella again until they meet up randomly in a New York City park. It leaves Estella as practically an ethereal figure just coming in and out of the story to seduce and eventually break the heart of Finn. As a narrative, it leaves so much of her character to be underdeveloped and someone who just interacts with Finn when it becomes convenient for her. It definitely shows where Forrest Gump took influence when creating the character of Jenny. Both of them are done a disservice as a result.
Transporting this story to New York takes a swing of translating a story meant for 13th century England into a more modern interpretation. The effort can certainly be seen as admirable but ultimately, it just does not work as well as in the original text because it does not suit American attitudes and values in the same way. It felt old-fashioned in a modern world, which could work well if blended well together but it ultimately felt too disjointed overall to have the impact the film wanted to have. Whether it sits as a failure in the adaptation or even the attempt, perhaps this story does not work at its best through this lens.
At the time of this film being released, it found Alfonso Cuarón in an interesting place within his filmography. As only his third feature directorial effort and second straight literary adaptation, it shows a director, not at full strength of his skill, which he would find very soon after with the masterful Y tu mamá también just a few years later. The lack of success of this feature thankfully allowed him to move away from this literary adaptation phase he was entering and shifted into more daring material even if he attempted to do the same with this story. I’ll certainly give him credit for attempting to add some zest to this story through his trademark camerawork and collaboration with cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki. Just an overall mismatch.
A decent effort but ultimately one lacking in much of what makes a successful film, Great Expectations feels unfulfilled in its explorations and more so impressive to look at as with any Cuarón feature. With plenty of stunning talent surrounding the picture, it left plenty to be desired but luckily everyone involved took their lessons and moved onto far more fruitful work later down the line.