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Great Expectations Are Never Fulfilled

By Yaron Koren
Staff Reporter

I have a confession to make: I've never read the novel Great Expectations, nor have I seen any of the previous British movies based on it. And I had no concept of its plot before seeing this movie. Whether this makes me better or worse as a reviewer is not clear, but in any case I feel secure in stating that Great Expectations is a tepid, pointless adaptation. This is Dickens redone as a Calvin Klein ad.

The story follows Finn Bell (Jeremy Kissner, then Ethan Hawke), a poor orphan living on Florida's gulf coast, raised by his uncle in a ramshackle house. He is befriended by an insane rich widow, Mrs. Dinsmoor (Anne Bancroft, in a theatrical performance that breathes some fresh air into the picture), and her aloof but beautiful daughter, Estella (Raquel Beaudene, and later Gwyneth Paltrow). He immediately falls in love with her and his obsession with her never fades, even after he heads for New York twelve years later to try to make his fortune as an artist.

Unfortunately, there is not much more to the storyline beyond this. The plot has been whittled down to its bare skeleton and even the love story is sketchy. The real subtext of Great Expectations is not any element of the plot. It is desire - protracted, unrequited, eroticized - that is the focus of the relationship between Finn and Estella, and of the entire movie. Gwyneth Paltrow plays up her ice queen role to the limit, simultaneously detached and yet suggestive through nearly every one of her scenes.

The movie runs very much like a slickly packaged advertisement or music video in its focus on desire, and not fulfillment, as the underlying goal. In fact, Great Expectations has other parallels to commercials and music videos - in the strong use of color, especially bright, washed-out blues and greens, and in the ambient rock soundtrack that permeates the entire movie. Since Finn is a painter, we get opportunities to see some haunting artwork throughout the movie, courtesy of actor (and amateur artist) Francesco Clemente. What a multifaceted man. If only everyone in Hollywood were this talented.

But what works beautifully in a three-minute music video is simply not enough to sustain a two-hour movie. The style of the movie is riveting, but in the end you are left feeling that the movie is pointless and lacks any coherent resolution. There are subplots within Great Expectations, which were presumably central to the original novel - Finn's rise to fame and prominence within haute New York society, and his encounters with escaped convict Robert Lustig (Robert DeNiro). Both are explored, but neither achieves any emotional resonance; the whole is never more than a sum of its parts. Other recent films that were similarly ultra-stylized, like Romeo & Juliet and Face/Off, were more successful because they had a strong narrative at their core. This is frosting-covered frosting.

Other annoyances in Great Expectations: the trite voice-over by Ethan Hawke, which does all the thinking for you and tries its hardest to remove the aura of mystery that the cinematography conveys. And the schematic repetition of dialogue and images from earlier on in the movie, creating Hollywood insta-profundity.

I'll resist the temptation to make a bad joke based on the title of the film; let's just say that if you come into this movie looking forward to anything other than nice cinematography and Ethan Hawke and Gwyneth Paltrow looking beautiful, you'll be disappointed. If you're hungry for the hip ambiance of Great Expectations, take my advice and buy a copy of the soundtrack instead. You'll feel better about yourself in the morning.