Alfonso Cuarón, 1998, USA
Contemporised version of Dickens’ classic updates marshland and London to Florida and the New York art scene. The film looks great and green, it is lush and holds many memorable moments, not necessarily Dickensian. The updating also means that it is more sexuality; there’s a redundant voice-over; there’s a grungier and funkier backing score; the convict-benefactor is involved with the Mafia, etc. There’s much to enjoy in the transposition of the earlier scenes to the Everglades, where the endless expanses of water maintain the book’s Gothic eeriness; or with Nora Dinsmoor’s mansion turned into a virtual swamp, and the later Thames scenes to the city underground trains. But there is less sure-footedness in the later New York scenes. The main problem is that all the central weirdness of the original text is increasingly swamped under American romantic conventions ~ and romance was arguably not Dickens’ main interest for “Great Expectations”, more a reader’s lure. It also means that many of both the peripheral and central eccentrics from the novel have disappeared and that Pip/Finn’s reunion with his convict-benefactor, now incarnated as the perfectly menacing-fatherly Magwitch De Niro, is a rushed affair. Luckily, a final ambiguity remains between the lovers ~ who here no longer remain totally unrequited. Ethan Hawke makes a rockier, less bewildered Finn/Pip; Paltrow is a fair femme fatale and Anne Bancroft’s Dinsmoor-Havisham is fine.
The pace is beguilingly moderate and the presentation is consummately pleasing on the eye. It works on a drift rather than the cut of the narrative. It has a bad reputation and indeed it is Dickens for the MTV age, perhaps, but Alfonso Cuarón knows what he’s doing. So, not necessarily good Dickens, but a decent tale nonetheless.