Once in a while, a film magically captures the indescribable feeling of love. From Love Story to Leaving Las Vegas, undeniable feelings between two people overcome all odds against them – and a historic piece of cinema emerges. Great Expectations (Twentieth Century Fox) is no such film.
The film is loosely adapted from the Charles Dickens classic by writer Mitch Glazer. Unlike his previous Dickens adaptation, Scrooged, Glazer has weakened the story with vain attempts to modernize it, using characters who lack the depth of the original tale.
Directed by Alfonso Cuaron, the film attempts a slick, stylized portrait of a man who wants what he can’t have. Instead, it becomes the audience that wants what it can’t have: a film with real feeling instead of flashy, MTV imagery.
The story begins in Florida. Young Finn (Jeremy James Kissner) is being raised by his sister’s ex-husband, a Fisherman named Joe (Chris Cooper, Lone Star). Finn spends his days walking on the beach and drawing fish in his notebook. One day, in a particularly haunting sequence, he stumbles upon an escaped convict, played by Robert DeNiro (Wag the Dog). Finn’s role in helping the man escape from prison serves as a turning point in the boy’s life.
From there, he meets the wealthy Ms. Dinsmoor, played by ancient Anne Bancroft (The Graduate). Ms. Dinsmoor is a bit crazy and likes to watch young boys dance in front of her. She also has a niece, Estella (Raquel Beaudene), for whom Finn immediately falls head over heels. Why? Maybe because she is beautiful, or maybe because he’d never seen a girl before. But the film is not interested in why people fall in love. It doesn’t have the time.
The film jumps ahead in time, with a grown Finn (Ethan Hawke, Before Sunrise) and Estella (Gwyneth Paltrow, Seven). Estella moves to New York, leaving Finn alone with his grief. He has given up on his art, the pain of losing his love too much to handle.
Then one day, a mysterious lawyer appears with an offer he can’t refuse: Come to New York, and show your art to the world. Soon he is in the Big Apple, gaining wealth and success – but yearning for more. Finn, of course, seeks Estella, but she is scheduled to marry a rich lawyer, played by Hank Azaria (Grosse Pointe Blank).
The first part of the film, in which Finn and Estella are still too young to understand love, is memorable. Set in a small fishing town by the sea, the subtle innocence of these characters portrays an age when anything is possible, and nothing can be lost. It is a great setup, but the film turns for the worse, taking away all the life it had attempted to dramatize.
While the acting may be top notch, and while the camera work is fun to watch, the audience never understands why these two characters love each other. The heart of the story, the true nature of fate and destiny as explored in the book, is skipped.
Finn asks Estella, “What’s it like not to feel anything?” She answers, “We are who we are. People don’t change.” It hardly seems enough to invest ourselves in their eventual Hollywood-redemption ending. By not caring about the characters, the film becomes dry and substance-less. It might look good on the outside, but in a closer look, there’s not much to be found.Great Expectations is now playing.
This article appeared in the February 5, 1998 issue of the Hatchet.