Thursday, May 10, 2012

Neglected Gem #13: Alfonso Cuarón’s Great Expectations (1997)

Alfonso Cuarón’s 1997 Great Expectations transposes Dickens to contemporary America without violating the spirit of the original. This is the third movie version of the beloved novel: there was an unmemorable Hollywood adaptation in 1934 (with Jane Wyatt as Estella), and David Lean made a deservedly famous one in England in 1946, paring down the book’s nearly five hundred pages but remaining very faithful to the story. His edition, an exceedingly handsome, high-style rendering, is almost a model for how to adapt Dickens: he gets so close to the way the classic scenes in Great Expectations look and feel to a reader’s imagination that, if you saw his movie when you were young enough, you may no longer be able to distinguish between his setting of the graveyard opening or Pip’s first view of Miss Havisham’s mouse-eaten wedding cake and the one you first envisioned when you read the book. But there are other approaches to adapting literature, and it’s a pity that critics were so quick to either jump on Cuarón’s or dismiss it outright when it was released. It’s a stunner.

The screenwriter, Mitch Glazer, has a nutty accuracy about his Dickens. Back in the late eighties, he wrote Scrooged, the updated Christmas Carol built around Bill Murray as an ambitious, mean-spirited, workaholic TV-exec Scrooge, and none of the many other film and TV versions of the story, except perhaps for the one from the early fifties featuring Alastair Sim, deserves to be talked about in the same conversation. Glazer brought out the best in the director, Richard Donner, who dreamed up surprising images to match the wondrous script, but in Great Expectations his collaborator came equipped with his own magic touch. In his previous picture, A Little Princess, Cuarón fitted out Frances Hodgson Burnett’s celebrated children’s story with sections – a fable within a fable – from Hindu mythology. Great Expectations is even better.

Ethan Hawke and Gwyneth Paltrow
Like the novel on which it’s based, and like Lean’s version, it’s embedded entirely in the point of view of the protagonist, who is here called Finnegan Bell and played first by Jeremy James Kissner and then – when Finn grows into adolescence and, throughout, in voice-over – by Ethan Hawke, in a tender, impassioned performance. Instead of a downriver cathedral town, this Great Expectations opens in the Florida Gulf. Finn, a young artist, is sketching by the water when the escaped convict, Arthur Lustig (Robert De Niro), suddenly appears like some sea monster. Finn draws in a highly individualized style that’s a strange combination of impressionism and expressionism; this orphan is truly gifted. (The wonderful drawings in the film were done by Francesco Clemente.) He lives with his sister Maggie (Kim Dickens), a sour ex-hippie, and her generous-hearted boy friend Joe (Chris Cooper), a hard-working but unlucky fisherman who is nonetheless the soul of this poor household. Maggie, whose unhappiness seems to be bred in the bone, cheats on him and one day just walks out and never comes back, leaving Joe to complete Finn’s raising on his own. Finn’s encounter with Lustig is “a brush with the world so large that I never saw it again” – the real world outside Finn’s small community. When Joe brings him to Paradiso Perduto (“lost paradise”) for the first time, to meet the rich, crazy recluse Nora Driggers Dinsmoor (Anne Bancroft), Finn begins to think of this huge, overgrown estate as the real world – the immense, exotic universe beyond his own that he longs to break into and conquer. Like Dickens’s Pip, Finn makes the mistake of believing that Dinsmoor owns the world, owns his future. But it’s really Lustig who becomes his benefactor, his magic carpet to the Manhattan high-art enclave (the movie’s equivalent of the book’s London society whirl) – and who, when he drops unrecognized and unwanted back in Finn’s life, brings with him, once more, the touch of the real world that alters Finn forever.

Bancroft won’t replace anyone’s memories of Martita Hunt as Miss Havisham in the Lean movie; she’s over the top, as she often is. But the first glimpses we get of her, dancing to “Besame Mucho” in a bright green pants suit with gold trim and a platinum blonde wig, lipstick and powder and mascara smeared on her decaying face – a drunk nursing her heartbreak and planning her revenge on all men – are startling. Raquel Beaudene plays the child Estella, a beautiful, haughty, golden-haired girl who makes Finn feel miniscule when she looks down her nose at him and refers to him disdainfully as “the gardener.” Miniscule and fatally smitten – in an enchanted moment, Estella drinks from the fountain in the jungle-like garden, Finn joins her, and they kiss in the cold stream with watery mouths and tongues. “You remember it,” his voice-over reminds us. “You remember how it felt. And then I went home to draw it.” This is the day Finn begins to dream of painting for the rich and winning Estella. He grows up in the shadow of her untouchable grandeur (and Raquel Beaudene grows into the carelessly graceful, swan-necked Gwyneth Paltrow, who has never looked so other-worldly beautiful or given so expressive a performance). It’s Estella who plants the idea of New York in his head, telling him it’s the center of the art world. When she permits this working-class boy to take her to a party, he shows her the drawing he’s made of her, and, touched, she comes on to him. But she doesn’t let him finish what she started – she brings him close and freezes him out at the same time. And then, the next day he finds she’s vanished, off to college in Paris, and for a while he loses the desire to paint and goes into business with Joe.

Anne Bancroft in Great Expectations
As shot by Emmanuel Lubezki, the Florida landscape is a sensuous, almost hallucinatory sea-green, and that’s the color of this movie. Miss Dinsmoor and Estella always wear it, and when the movie’s version of Jaggers the lawyer, the bearded, white-suited Jerry Ragno (Josh Mostel), appears bearing Finn’s “great expectations” – the money to make his old dreams of painting for the New York rich come true – and the movie shifts to Manhattan, green is the first color we see (in a street lamp). In fact, it never leaves the movie, because try as he might, Finn can never lose his roots. He’s been irrevocably shaped by the events of his childhood – by the Saturday afternoons at Paradiso Perduto with Estella, the love of his life, and by his watery encounter with Lustig, who, unbeknownst to him, has determined his life’s direction. At a fountain in Central Park, Estella astonishes Finn by repeating the wet kiss of their first childhood meeting. She’s still wearing green, of course, and she’s more beautiful than ever, and more elusive. Cuarón is a natural expressionist (the distorted close-ups of Dinsmoor reflected in her make-up mirror are a nod to another great expressionist, Terry Gilliam: they reference a scene from Brazil), and the New York he and Lubezki create for Finn is magical, full of dark promise, highly stylized. The store windows he passes have an eerie glow, like the Paris clothes-shop windows in Bertolucci’s The Conformist, and there’s a marvelous moment when Finn, having learned that Estella has married her hang-around boy friend, the wealthy Walter Plane (Hank Azaria, a welcome presence in any movie), looks up at the sky: Cuarón’s camera zooms up, and we see the newlyweds at the window of a plane, as if Finn could see them from the earth.

As in Dickens, Estella warns Finn not to love her. When she poses naked for him, exciting him and then – just as she did in Florida – walking out on him, he runs after her, demanding to know what it’s like to feel nothing, and she answers, “We are who we are. People don’t change.” The story, both Dickens’s and this movie’s, both affirms and denies this assertion. It’s about the desire of two adults – Nora Dinsmoor and Arthur Lustig – to mold young people into something like their images, or their dream images of themselves: the gentleman conquering high society, the Venus breaking every heart she melts – and how their narcissism almost destroys the instruments of their manipulation. It’s about our inability to escape our past, the people we were as children. But it’s also about the power of love to modify those influences.

Robert De Niro and Jeremy James Kissner
In New York, his heart smashed once again, Finn decides to capitalize on the fairy tale he’s being featured in and reinvent himself as a celebrity artist. He lies about his past, using a half-made-up sordid Gulf past to get publicity; he becomes chic, vain, knowing. We like Finn a lot less in this section of the movie than in any other. But then, the world he now belongs to is icy and unreal; the only things in it that are real to him are Estella and his work. The filmmakers provide a terrific scene that isn’t in the novel, a meeting between Estella’s two swains: Walter comes by Finn’s studio to see his drawings of Estella, to warn Finn off and to find out more about him at the same time. (Walter is a more interesting character than Dickens’s Bentley Drummle, who is just a device.) And the way in which they dramatize the misbegotten reunion of the transplanted Finn and his first father figure, Joe, may remain with you forever. Joe crashes Finn’s gallery opening, just as Finn is posing for a photo with the gallery owner (Nell Campbell) and an influential art critic (Stephen Spinella). Joe is loud and says all the wrong things and embarrasses Finn with stories of his childhood. It’s an agonizing scene: we feel terrible for both men, and we’re horrified when Joe fusses over the drinks he’s spilled and Finn shouts at him and Joe, deeply humiliated, walks out. (Chris Cooper is simply splendid.)

Reappearing suddenly in New York, Lustig, again on the lam, is another specter from Finn’s past that materializes to remind him where he came from. He tells Finn that he built this world for the good-hearted little boy who did a pure thing for him – though, ironically, his money has distanced Finn from that purity and goodness. But it’s also Lustig who manages to reawaken those qualities. At first repulsed by him, Finn finally tries to help him escape. Like Pip, he fails, but the subway ride they take together echoes the boat ride Lustig made him take with him in the Gulf all those years ago, and at the end of his life, Lustig produces a token, long believed lost, that stirs Finn’s memories and makes us understand that there’s no way to separate out the one “good thing” the convict says he did in his life – the wealth he visited on the boy – from the taint on it, or his terrible judgment from his love for the child who was kind to him. (This scene seems to act as a restorative for De Niro, too: it’s not too much to say that Lustig’s death scene is the best acting he’s done since his heyday in the early and mid seventies.)

Dickens has always been kind to filmmakers: look at the films Lean, Carol Reed and Roman Polanski all made of Oliver Twist. But this Great Expectations takes an imaginative leap with the material that’s entirely unexpected – because of its radical vision and because of its fidelity to Dickens’s vision. Glazer and Cuarón must love Dickens very much. They never break faith with him.

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review, The Boston Phoenix and The Christian Century and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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