Wednesday, August 15, 2012

THE DEFENSE CALLS: Great Expectations (1998)

As the trailer for the latest film adaptation of Great Expectations was released today, I found myself nostalgic for a version nearly fifteen years old now.  Naturally this isn't the sort of nostalgia one gets for the lesser-known films of Orson Welles, or the golden age of noir, but it was a tinge of admiration I hadn't felt in a while.  The 1998 version of Great Expectations is a sorely underappreciated, modern-day telling of the Charles Dickens classic.  And while the new version of the film, starring Helena Bonham Carter and Ralph Fiennes among others, looks compelling in its own right, I firmly believe it will struggle to surpass the 1998 version from Alfonso Cuaron back before he was a heralded director of such films as Children of Men and Y Tu Mama Tambien.

But Great Expectations sits at a paltry 38% on the Tomatometer.  I know now, as I did then, that critic and audience response was low, but this is a shame.  It was called too "pared down" by Todd McCarthy of Variety.  "A shiny surface with nothing underneath," says another critic.  So it was panned, released, and forgotten.  But this adaptation of the novel, taken from an industrial, turn-of-the-century Great Britain all the way to New England and Manhattan during the 80s, has a great richness and skillful storytelling at its core.  There are a number of reasons to reconsider Great Expectations.

EXHIBIT A: The Man Behind The Camera - Alfonso Cuaron was a nobody in Hollywood in the late nineties.  Just another visionary director struggling to make his mark.  His big break would come a few years later when he changed the direction of the Harry Potter series from kid friendly to true fantasy in The Prisoner of Azkaban.  From there he would direct a science-fiction masterpiece in Children of Men.  And although Cuaron was an unknown in 1998, of course he still had his eye and his mind, and in Great Expectations he creates a universe of beautiful imagery and thoughtful scenery.  The dilapidated mansion of Miss Densmoor (Mrs. Havisham in the novel) is a spooky and ominous spectacle of art direction.  Cuaron directs the entire picture with style and panache, and makes each and every frame a rich exploration into the divided worlds of the rich and the poor.

EXHIBIT B: The Leads - Anne Bancroft is wonderfully extravagant as Havisham/Densmoor.  Of course Robert DeNiro, in one of his last good roles, is compelling as the escaped convict who secretly finances the ascent of Finn (Pip originally).  But Great Expectations rests on the shoulders of the male and female lead.  Gwyneth Paltrow is Estella, the woman forever manipulated to use and mentally abuse the love of her life, young Pip.  Pip, again as Finn in this version, is played by Ethan Hawke.  The two actors have a certain opposing chemistry perfect for the story.  Paltrow is cold and withdrawn, and very beautiful.  Hawke is wiry and taut and brimming with energy and frustration.  The way these two leads play off each other carries the film.  For anyone saying their portrayals are lacking, I say look a little closer next time.

EXHIBIT C: Changing the Times - Great Expectations had been done on film in 1946, set in the traditional time of the novel, so it seemed to be a fresh perspective moving the film to the 80s, changing the setting to Manhattan, and making Finn's rise to social stardom through his talent as an artist.  The entire set up of this version shapes the film like an article from Vogue magazine, stylish and contemporary.  It also helps to define the novel as a timeless tale of class politics and romance.  The romantic struggle between these two aimless lovers fits into the hedonistic lifestyles of Manhattan, and it is a bold move executed well by everyone involved.

IN CONCLUSION - Take another look at Great Expectations.  I imagine if many of these critics who panned the film would give it another chance they would see redeeming qualities here.  Maybe it would be due in part to Cuaron as an established director, and based in some fascination with his early career.  And that is short sighted.  Appreciate the film for what it is, a stylish and romantic picture with great performances big and small.