Expect Great Blah Blah Bad Joke

Film: Great Expectations
Year: 1998
Director: Alfonso Cuarón

If you’re still reading this critical schlock chute I call a blog, then it can only be because you find yourself hounded by one prevailing cinelogical question, which holds you tight in an insomniac buzz through the night hours and over which every tier of your conscious, crying out in the unanimous voice of revolt, demands satisfaction. The answer is no, I cannot tell you whence arose nor whither went Hollywood’s late-‘90s fixation on characters drawing each other naked. It was a trend like any other, I guess. But I can tell you that there is one such scene in Great Expectations, Alfonso Cuarón’s epoch-shifting rendition of the renowned romance-and-jurisprudence novel by Charles Dickens, that blows Titanic’s out of the water and proves As Good As It Gets is not so. There is no such episode in the book—to the dismay of Victorian smut lovers then and now—but Cuarón is not afraid to take some hearty license in the service of what is actually an excellent adaptation and a lovely, lovely film.

Ethan Hawke stars as Finn (né Pip), a Florida Gulf orphan who lives by default with his sister and is raised with kindly gusto by her husband. Trained strappingly in the trade of shallow-sea fishing, he becomes greatly expectant when a lawyer from the Big Apple arrives, claiming to represent interest in his artwork—delicate, minimalist sketches with eyes that put Margaret Keane’s to shame. Finn deduces that the sudden knock of success is really a matchmaking conspiracy devised by the spinster shut-in Miss Dinsmoor (Anne Bancroft) and intended to boost his social favor far enough to validate his adoration for her blue-blooded niece, Estella (Gwyneth Paltrow).

If you’ve read the novel, then you know roughly what twists of fate (or free will, I should say) ensue. If you have not done the reading, I would not urge you to relocate it immediately to a higher bracket on your bucket list—go ahead and leave it somewhere between eating Michael Jordan’s unfinished French fries out of the trash and appearing in a Zantac commercial. The book is not, I think, one of Dickens’ most enduring works. Which is not the same as saying that I think it has no literary merit; a more accurate way to put it would be that its literary merit is inaccessible, or at least ill-fitted, to a contemporary reader. In the twenty-first century, its intended pitch lands on ears deafened to that particular frequency in the course of ever-transforming sensibilities.

Here is where Mitch Glazer’s script is a clever adaptation. Beyond updating the geographic locus and era, he and Cuarón tailor the tone of the story so that it may resound in its fresh surroundings—and they effect this alteration down to the very natures of the characters. Where Pip’s innocence in the book comes across as prostrate naiveté, Hawke imbues Finn with a spineful affability that wins back the easy affection we are meant to carry for him. The movie repeats this rejuvenation again and again, rarely stammering as it searches for cognate expressions. Not only is it fluent in its translation from one historical context to another, it’s downright silver-tongued. I was captivated—as captivated as I wish I had been in reading the novel—to see how the switch-wielding cruelty of Pip’s sister was reimagined as the poignant trailer-trash negligence of Finn’s; how the churlish thuggery of Pip’s romantic rival, Bentley Drummle, became the geeky jealousy of Estella’s socialite fiancé (Hank Azaria); how Miss Havisham’s vampiric hermit-crabbiness was substituted with Miss Dinsmoor’s bohemian early-onset dementia; and Estella’s mercurial gravity with… well, some things never change (and need not).

These characters have traveled first-class in the time machine that delivers them to the brave new world of contemporary Florida—an executive designation that allots them a fundamental wardrobe change. Dressed to the modern-day dispositional nines, they flourish where their paginated counterparts would seem clunky and foreign. The translation is brilliant because it realizes that expecting them to transport their precise personality mock-ups intact across an ocean and nearly two centuries and thrive like nothing has changed is more absurd than asking them to live in 1990s Manhattan on an 1820s Kent blacksmith’s salary.

I suppose I can say nothing better in endorsement of Great Expectations than that it made me excited to reread a lengthy book I didn’t particularly enjoy the first time around.

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