This “Great Expectations” is something less than a pip. A fanciful and free modern-day adaptation of Charles Dickens’ classic novel about a poor boy’s circuitous ascent in the world, beautifully made production lacks the emotional depth and dramatic tension needed to command audience attention beyond the level of a talented curiosity. Without top reviews, this picaresque drama describing several characters’ peculiar destinies will have trouble raising much interest among the general public.
Intriguing due to its rich source material, which served as the basis for David Lean’s classic 1946 film, and as the second American effort by the gifted Mexican director Alfonso Cuaron after his splendid “The Little Princess,” this dazzlingly colorful film boasts any number of memorable images and vividly realized scenes. But the overall effect is strangely opaque and lacking in resonance due to a number of factors.
Eight-year-old orphan Finn Bell is growing up in marginal circumstances in a sleepy fishing village along the Florida coast. With no warning, his trashy sister takes off, leaving him in the care of his “uncle” Joe (Chris Cooper). Certainly the most momentous incident of his young life is strikingly conveyed: While in shallow water, Finn is accosted by a shackled escaped convict (Robert De Niro) who coerces the boy into helping him but whose urgent humanity later inspires Finn to give him aid when he needs it most.
The convict’s visually startling but physically implausible rise out of the surf underscores the film’s premise, that the events on view are presented as Finn remembers them years later, not necessarily the way they happened. That the boy’s one notable talent is drawing further asserts the primacy of the film’s interest in the imagination over the literal.
The other highlight of Finn’s youth are his visits to Paradiso Perduto, a crumbling old Venetian-style mansion where he is periodically paged to play with the lovely young Estella, the niece of the house’s owner, Ms. Dinsmoor (Anne Bancroft). The film’s version of the novel’s Miss Havisham, Ms. Dinsmoor is a flamboyantly self-dramatizing creature, complete with heavy makeup and cigarette holder, who has spent most of her life feeling tragic over having been abandoned by a man. Watching Finn fall for her beautiful blond niece while he draws her, the old lady devotes herself to vengefully molding Estella into a hard woman who will make men weep.
A half-hour in, action jumps to the ’80s. Finn and Estella, now in their late teens and played by Ethan Hawke and Gwyneth Paltrow, meet once again and experience a highly erotic encounter — an extension of an unforgettable kiss at a water fountain they shared as kids. But Estella has learned her lessons well and, at a crucial moment, abruptly disappears, leaving a bewildered Finn heartbroken. For seven years he doesn’t draw or paint, living on the margins with Joe until a mysterious stranger, a New York art world rep (Josh Mostel), appears to offer Finn a one-man show if he’ll come to Manhattan and start painting again.
With Ms. Dinsmoor as his apparent benefactor, Finn takes up the artist’s life in Gotham. Inevitably, Estella re-enters his life, and although she has a wealthy boyfriend, Walter (Hank Azaria), she first sits for a nude portrait, then finally allows their long flirtation to be consummated. This presumably heightens the work Finn needs to complete in 10 weeks to make his opening, but the film’s intensity and occasional bursts of magic begin to ebb just as the story reaches the heart of the matter.
Despite its narrative flights and abundance of coincidences and interconnections, pic lacks complexity and genuine surprise. Dickens’ story has been too pared down by screenwriter Mitch Glazer, to the point where it comes close to seeming like just another success story with a few regrets piled up along the way. Director Cuaron has attempted to replace Dickens’ wealth of social detail with flourishes of magical realism, particularly in the florid Florida sections, but they don’t carry anywhere near the equivalent weight.
While appealing enough, Hawke exhibits limited range and depth as Finn. Despite his unusual life, Finn doesn’t come across as all that interesting, and Hawke provides him with little perceptible inner life or ambition.
Paltrow serves up the requisite flintiness and flightiness for Estella, while also nicely conveying the sense of loss in living as effervescently as she does. Bancroft’s theatrical turn is colorful but predictable, while De Niro, after the “Cape Fear”-like bullying of his opening scene, returns late in the show in a very different, highly engaging and personable mode.
Despite a host of the same collaborators and excellent individual contributions, the visual style doesn’t coalesce here as brilliantly as it did in “The Little Princess.” Emmanuel Lubezki’s widescreen lensing is eye-popping at times in its moves and colorations, and Tony Burrough’s production design shows extravagant imagination. Paintings and drawings by Francesco Clemente, repping the work done by Finn, are distinctive and eye-catching.