Great Expectations (1998)

Poor Charlie Dickens must be rolling around in his grave.

In this Americanized version of Charles Dickens’s classic novel, set in 1990s New York instead of 1860s England, humble, young Finn (Ethan Hawke) develops a lifelong crush on Estella (Gwyneth Paltrow), the wealthy niece of the eccentric Ms. Dinsmoor (Anne Bancroft). The pair part, but then a mysterious benefactor makes it possible for Finn to attend art school in the city, where he runs into his now-engaged love.

I confess that I have never read Dickens’ classic novel, which is the basic idea where this modern-day adaptation came from, but that does not mean that this film should get some slack for me. It still kind of sucks.

After watching Children of Men, I realize that director Alfonso Cuarón, really can do something amazing when it comes to the way a film looks and feels. Once again, Cuarón does that one-shot steadi-cam trademark that he had in Children of Men and its just great to look at because I felt like I was there the whole time, but that’s not all that looks great.

The production values just look beautiful with the constant beautiful colors that inhabit this world these characters live in, the way the sunset is captured so well, and even the paintings from Italian painter Francesco Clemente are outstanding. The colors also set a tone for almost each and every scene, as well as the music here which seems to combine two music genres together. It’s certainly a very pretty film to look at the only problem is that the film could have actually spent a lot more time on it’s screenplay.

The screenplay from Mitch Glazer starts off very promising, but then starts to turn into this utterly cheesy and predictable romantic drama that we have seen time and time again, the only difference here is that these people are pretty and artistic, so there’s somehow more of a artsy feel to this whole love angle. The film wants to dive into moments of actual beauty when it shows how you can become famous while still ticking to your guns, but instead just shows this dude practically drooling over this hot blonde. And don’t let me forget to mention all the terrible and non-stop cliches.

Another huge problem with this film is that I never quite felt attracted to these characters and I never really found anything that amazing about them, as much as the film wanted me to. Finn has practically been following Estella for 20 years but there is never anything really shown about her character that makes her anything to chase after for that long other than a nice body, some good boobies, and just another pretty face. It’s annoying too because this dude keeps on getting knocked over left-and-right without her ever saying good-bye to him once, which would have definitely been my calling card to say screw her.

Ethan Hawke is OK as Finn, although he has been a lot better in other films. My one problem with this character is that he never really takes any action for himself, which kind of creates a big wall of separation between him and the audience. We all want to connect with this guy and root for him, but if you keep on getting pushed around by this chick and seemingly don’t do anything else other than just draw a bunch of fancy looking paintings, there’s not much there to endear with in the first place.

Gwyneth Paltrow nails Estella down very well and actually attributes to my fondness of her character, even though there was nothing really special about her. The chemistry her and Hawke have isn’t bad but it’s hard to actually judge whether it was good or not, when their screen-time together was so limited. If I had gotten more scenes with them just talking, flirting, hell just boning, I would have understood the loooooooooooove between them both, but I just got a bunch of smiley faces.

Robert De Niro is good as Arthur, even though he’s basically Robert De Niro with a goofy look; Anne Bancroft was fun to watch as this totally up-and-down and crazy nut as Ms. Dinsmoor, which was the best performance of the whole cast really; Chris Cooper is good to watch as Uncle Joe; and Hank Azaria adds nothing to this film as Walter Plane.

Consensus: The beauty is within the production design and direction, but the problems lie within the screenplay that offers nothing other than countless romantic drama cliches, a love story that had no real believable love to it, and characters that aren’t too interesting to begin with.



  1. I haven’t seen this particular rendition of the film, but I was subjected to the novel in high school. It’s worth nothing that Pip’s (in the book he was Pip, I guess that’s not cool enough for 1990s New York) attraction to Estella is completely unfounded in the novel as well. My memory’s a bit fuzzy on it (being more than a decade away from reading it will do that to you), but I seem to recall one of Pip’s friends even calling him out on this. To some extent, I think Dickens was deliberately deconstructing the “love at first sight” and other superficial-love concepts. Of course, it’s possible the movie completely overlooked that; it’s the sort of thing Hollywood overlooks.

  2. I’ve read the book and seen all the various movie interpretations of it, and I’d say that your assessment of this version is pretty much spot on. Beautiful to look at, but lacking in heart, kind of like Estella is throughout most of the novel. 😀 One of the main themes of the book is obsession vs. real love, which I think this movie doesn’t really explore very well, sadly.

    But I still must give it at least one star simply because some of the Ms. Dismoor (Miss Havisham) scenes were filmed at one of our local museums, the Ca’ d’Zan Mansion in Sarasota, the former home of John and Mable Ringling of Ringling Brothers Circus fame. At that time the Gilded Age mansion was in need of extensive repair work and so permitted the movie company set dec crew make it look even worse (using lots of that famous green paint that Alfonso Cuarón is so fond of!), and then used the money earned to start its extensive 6-year renovation project. I’ve toured the mansion many times both before and afterward (In fact I was at a wedding there just a couple of weeks ago), and I can say that the money was well spent! 🙂

  3. Great looking movie but yea, it’s a good sleeping pill. Ethan Hawke just isn’t very convincing here as the romantic lead and Gwyneth Paltrow playing haughty is almost cliche in itself!

  4. I kind of liked this film more than you did while I totally agree with you on the film’s technical pointers as it features that great cinematography of Chivo, who is my favorite DP. I also agree that while it had a great start, it did get a bit dis-interesting once it revolves Finn and Estella as teens. I’m still mixed about the film as I had more complaints towards Mitch Glazer’s screenplay than some of the ideas Alfonso Cuaron wanted to do.

    Yet, I think the reason it got made because Hollywood executives thought “Hey, that Romeo & Juliet with Leonardo DiCaprio did pretty well. Why not do a new version of ‘Great Expectations’?” Some ideas should just be shut down.

  5. I’ve never seen this. The picture of Gwyneth looks intriguing but I don’t think I really need to bother with this one. Thanks Dan.

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