The same year Gus Van Sant pissed on Psycho (vague connection to horror achieved!), Alfonso Cuaron, producer Art Linson, writer Mitch Glazer (with aided by some David Mamet-penned voice-overs), and Twentieth Century Fox were busy committing an only slightly lesser act of vandalism; trying to improve on Charles Dickens. For the first film adaptation of Dickens’ novel Great Expectations since David Lean’s 1948 version, the setting was updated, brightened substantially, and moved to the U.S., character names were changed, and a healthy dose of eroticism. Those differences alone would be enough to turn off critics, but any chance the film had of gaining an after-the-fact following was likely stunted by Cuaron’s later statements that it was a “complete failed film”, one where he spent his time tinkering with the visuals rather than fully developing the story. But like Steven Soderbergh before him, Cuaron has mistaken a bad experience making a movie with an actually bad movie, which Great Expectations is not.
I would admittedly not blame you if you were immediately turned off by me telling you that Pip (here called Finn) and Estella are played here by Ethan Hawke and Gwyneth Paltrow, at near-maximum insufferability for the former and just at the bleeding edge of insufferability for the latter. I think that they’re both good in the film, thankfully (although you may have a lower tolerance for Hawke’s stubble than I), but regardless of their names being first on the poster, it’s not really their movie. It’s not really Anne Bancroft (playing the movie’s version of Miss Havisham) and Robert De Niro (playing the Magwitch analogue)’s movie either, even though they provide the movie’s biggest concession to Dickensian grotesquerie. It’s not even really Chris Cooper’s movie, even though he’s utterly heartbreaking as Finn’s caretaker after his sister leaves them both high and dry. No, this movie belongs to Cuaron and Emmanuel Lubezki. Any heat generated between Hawke and Paltrow almost pales in comparison to the sensuality of the filmmaking on display here. This film marks the peak of Lubezki’s lush cinematographic style, and it goes out with a bang here, filling the widescreen frame with gorgeous light at all times (most memorably when young Finn and Estella kiss at a water fountain, the streams of water sparkling in the sun), creating a heightened, romantic world for the main characters to navigate. And beyond lighting, Lubezki and Cuaron make brilliant use of the camera, creating swoony shots of attractive bodies (one shot seems to move with the rhythm of Paltrow’s hips), beautiful sets (especially the crumbling mansion at the center of the film), and gorgeous Francesco Clemente drawings, when they’re not anticipating their future films by going handheld and, in one particularly brilliant scene, indulging in an epic long take of Ethan Hawke running in the rain to Estella, sweeping the viewer up in the passion he feels more than Hawke visibly emoting ever could. Cuaron may beat himself up over prioritizing the look of the film over its content, but he ends up serving both in the process.
Great Expectations is available to watch on Netflix Instant.