Alfonso Cuar_n Retrospective: So I called my self Pip, and came to be called Pip
At the time it was happening, the brief but showy run of modern-day literary adaptations of the late '90s (bracketed approximately by Clueless in 1995 and O in 2001) was immensely annoying, at least to me; too much enthusiastic cribbing from the flash-and-dazzle teen culture of the day, far too many shrill attempts to find modern analogues to pre-industrial concepts in ways that are meant to be clever and virtually never are. But a certain creeping nostalgia over the intervening decade has left the things feeling charmingly kitschy and delightful, the way that so many pop culture curios seem more tolerable the further you're removed from their cultural moment (I am particularly thinking of the AIP beach movies, but maybe I'm the only one who kind of loves them). Still, outside of Clueless itself, most of them aren't actually "good" in most of the usefully quantifiable ways (though I would go to the mat for the irredeemably trashy, insanely fun Cruel Intentions).
In most ways, the 1998 Great Expectations isn't a particularly noteworthy representative of this trend, except in one immensely important though easily-ignored way: it is far and away one of the most aggressively stylised, second only to Baz Luhrmann's phantasmagoric William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet. This, of course, is what happens when you throw director Alfonso Cuarón and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki at a project, and to a lesser degree, editor Steven Weisberg: the only man to cut the three films where Cuarón did not serve as editor himself, which also happen to be the three least-interestingly-edited films of the director's career, though Great Expectations is itself the best of those.
Before we get too far into that, there's a huge caveat. The style is great; the style is beautiful; the style is radical. All of that. Tragically, the style is empty. In every other one of Cuarón's features, including his immediately preceding collaborations with Lubezki and Weisberg, A Little Princess, the succulent lighting and meandering camera and formal gamesmanship and all other joyful things are almost always used to establish or reinforce character, to draw our attention to physical space, to throw the viewer bodily into an emotional reaction, or (particularly in Y tu mamá también, his next film), the opposite of all that, to create an abstract separation between us and the onscreen material, that we might intellectually reflect on it. The point is, it always serves one of four masters: character, story, emotion, theme.
With Great Expectations, we arrive at what I believe to be the only "style for style's sake" movie in Cuarón's career, which is actually kind of impressive, given how much style there is in his cinema. There are many ideas thrown at the screen, and many of them make damn little sense at all, and the feeling of it is somewhat unfortunately that the director was trying as hard as he could to compensate for a pretty crappy screenplay, adapted from Charles Dickens's novel by Mitch Glazer, whose bona fides for this project consist in his having written another modern Dickens film ten years prior, Scrooged. Which is a good film, and conceptually delicious. But making the 600th filmed A Christmas Carol as a late-'80s Bill Murray vehicle, and making the first big-screen adaptation of the author's most pitiless drama in more than half a century require different skill sets. Points for trying - even a short Dickens novel is oozing with subplots and melodramatic hairpin turns - but the condensation that Glazer ended up producing isn't a terribly effective piece of drama in its own right, and it's certainly not an effective adaptation of the book in any way (and I should perhaps disclose around this point that Great Expectations is my favorite English-language novel. Not the one I think is the best; just my favorite).
The latter part of that equation isn't worth bothering about (but really, "Finnegan 'Finn' Bell" is a more reasonable and modern-sounding name than "Philip 'Pip' Pirrip"? In what fucking universe?), but the former part clearly is, because it's one of the chief reasons that Great Expectations is the worst movie of Cuarón's career. In taking this story of how Finn Bell rises from childhood (Jeremy James Kissner) into young adulthood (Ethan Hawke), from grinding poverty to the wonderfully free life of an artist with a wealthy patron, from innocence to wizened knowledge, and stuffing it into 111 minutes, Glazer did what was, in 1998, the most obvious thing possible: he focused on the love story. Which is fine, but Great Expectations isn't a love story at all, it's a bildungsroman that uses a chronologically splintered love story as its structuring element, and the bulk of the plot is in all the things that aren't the history of romantic tension between Finn and Estella (Raquel Beaudine as a kid, growing up to be Gwyneth Paltrow). So in order to be absolutely anything as far as a story goes, the script has to cram plot in wherever there's room, which results in a final 30 minutes that feel like a madcap race involving Craaazy Robert De Niro and CRAAAAAAAZIER Anne Bancroft, and no room for modulating anything.
The whole movie is a disaster of pacing, really. The best part is the frequently terrific opening quarter, in which Little Finn, living with his loving brother-in-law Joe (Chris Cooper) and not very loving sister Maggie (Kim Dickens) on the Gulf Coast of Florida, crosses paths with an ex-convict (De Niro), and later, becomes the human plaything of a bizarre wealthy old spinster, Ms. Dinsmoor (Bancroft), who, as we ken to before the rest of the characters do, is grooming him to be the object of her revenge against the male gender. It's slow, it explores characters expansively and at depth, it builds place beautifully - Lubezki's camera makes Florida look as good as it ever, ever has on film - and Bancroft's camp-addled turn as Dinsmoor, under several inches, it seems, of makeup, is a perfect disorienting force for the rest of the movie to hang on.
But once Finn grows up, it's scattershot and arrhythmic, jogging through days of plot in seconds, and then lingering out on scenes that don't seem to matter more than any other scenes, and then indulging in a maddening "make a painting of the hot naked chick" montage that makes one cry out in pain for Titanic. When David Lean and a squadron of writers made their Great Expectations in 1946, they encountered none of these problems: that film is smoothly told, eminently clear, richly suffused with character. And it's almost certainly the best cinematic Dickens adaptation ever. The '98 Great Expectations is total Amateur Hour in comparison, fumbling major plot reveals and character arcs in its fevered pursuit of The Fucking Love Story.
Which would have even worked, if the love story had been anything worth a damn. The reason that it's not is partially due to a script that is more interested in what people do than who they are, more to Hawke and Paltrow's deadly, hopeless performances. I'm generally someone willing to defend the wildly over-maligned Paltrow, but she's a parody of her worst habits in this one: too much archness, too much irony, and the film treats her like a blonde hairdo and calculating eyes and nothing else, anyway. Hawke is far more damaging: maybe the very worst thing he's ever done, in fact (he'd do better in the modern literary game with 2000's Hamlet), defensible only in that the bratty '90s alpha male shtick that he resists not at all is a good way of expressing the fallen, selfish Pip of the novel, though not really the Finn in the screenplay. The rest of the cast fares well - Cooper is the easy best in show, and Bancroft is on some other planet where "good" and "bad" judgments of acting don't apply - but Finn is the thing holding the movie together, and if he's a flat, insipid douchebag, well...
All of which is a ridiculously long-winded way of saying that, if Cuarón and company end up throwing all the style they've got at the film, that's less because it feels like they're bringing it to life, than because they're trying, desperately, to compensate for a perpetually stalled drama. Even then, the aesthetic choices are odd as often as they're exciting: the odd habit of using dissolves, rather than straight cuts, in the scenes with Estella as a child might have worked if they paid off (you can explain the dissolves as a gesture towards Finn's hazy, dreamy relationship to Estella, or some bullshit like that), but once Paltrow takes over the role, the technique is stopped. And in the film's numerous, vigorously Expressionistic canted angles, we finally run across something I had thought did not exist: a choice made by Emmanuel Lubezki that absolutely does not work out.
Even the parts that work best, aren't entirely great. Like the color palette, bringing back the green from A Little Princess and marrying it to a few key explosions of red, green's opposite; the red works incredibly well (particularly in a pair of shots at the very beginning and the very end, both involving De Niro), but where A Little Princess had a specific and clear purpose in using the director's favorite color, this movie pretty much just has green.
There are a few genuinely, unimpeachable artistic touches: the editing frequently uses quick repetitions of a single beat to emphasis Finn's moments of strong emotion, and the accretion of bombastic and showy images, particularly those anchored by the unhinged Dinsmoor, ends up giving the film a sense of abstraction that legitimately does distract from how the plot never works. And it's deliriously pretty: pretty Florida exteriors, pretty Florida interiors, thrilling use of the Z-axis in compositions (though outside of a couple tracking shots - one where young Finn runs home after his run-in with the convict made me literally gasp - the camera is mostly strapped-down, a real disappointment for this director and cinematographer). But pretty isn't enough to save the movie; it's what encourages me to say, "this is not very good" instead "man, fuck this thing". It's tremendously well-made. But seriously, fuck it.