Published February 1, 1998
Hollywood producers have always been a prey to the delusion that what makes great novels great are their stories, or their characters or their “ideas”—things whose transfer to celluloid is fairly straightforward. But as Stéphane Mallarmé once said of poems, novels are not made of ideas but of words. Without Dickens’s words, Great Expectations is just superior Victorian melodrama and not necessarily promising material for the movies—though David Lean, John Mills and Alec Guinness managed to make a pretty good job of it half a century ago. But perhaps it is not even possible anymore. Pip’s encounter with the convict on the East Anglian marshes has an elemental quality to it that it is scarcely possible to reproduce today. When Alfonso Cuarón, working from a screenplay by Mitch Glazer, tries to reproduce it in his new cinematic version of the novel, we keep asking ourselves why the little boy (here, for some obscure reason, renamed Finn) didn’t just go to the police? Kids nowadays, for better and worse, are much more connected to the world and unlikely to let a scary man met in a wilderness fill their whole mental horizon unless they are disturbed or retarded.
Well, OK. The adaptors couldn’t help that. And Robert DeNiro’s fine performance as the convict shows that they really tried to make his scariness override all that TV-borne youthful sophistication. What they could help was the casting of Ethan Hawke as the grown-up Finn. This is an actor with only one facial expression in his repertory: a sort of dumb amazement, expressed with the mouth open, which makes him look to me like a village idiot. And yet for some reason he is often cast in the part of a brooding intellectual. Here he is an artist. And that’s another problem. Dickens’s Pip went to London to learn how to be a gentleman. All through Dickens’s novel there is the very strong sense that gentlemanliness is a noble aspiration. Mr Glazer’s Finn aspires to be a boor by the now forgotten standards of the gentleman—a New York art celebrity whose lack of manners is supposed to be a token of his authenticity of feeling. Pip’s contemporary avatar doesn’t want to be a gentleman; he wants to be rich and famous. It’s not the same.
So even if this adaptation of the novel could survive the loss of Dickens’s language and its unprepossessing leading man, the extraction of its moral dimension would be fatal. In fact, you don’t see any education taking place—not even the education in boorishness that young New York artists must undergo. One minute Finn is arriving in New York, a rube from Florida with nothing, and the next he’s opening his own incredibly successful show at a posh gallery in the city, and being rude to all the rich art people who know him by his first name. How did he get from there to here? We never find out. All we see of him working is his sketching his femme fatale, Estella (Gwyneth Paltrow), in the nude.
As in Titanic, that is, a romantic artist sketches his gal nude as a preliminary to or a substitute for sexual congress. In this case, it suggests that sex is for him a pose, like art. The artistic pose is obvious, given that Finn simply gives up his art for eight years after Estella leaves their little Florida Gulf Coast town for Europe. He goes to work on the fishing boat of his stepfather, Joe (Chris Cooper) and is quite happy there. Artistic expression comes back to him only as a means to a social and pecuniary end. Thus for Finn, looking broodingly and drawing childish dawbs that are supposed to be works of genius becomes the equivalent of learning the gentlemanly arts in Dickens.
By the way, the pictures we see, which purport to come from the pencil of Finn, are actually the work of Francesco Clemente, and they make an odd sort of comment on the action of their own. For the various representations of the body of the beautiful and charming Miss Paltrow are rendered with considerable sensual realism while the heads all seem to have that angular, bovine quality that makes Picasso’s women so scary. The awkward join of human and animal may also serve as an ironic comment on the gentlemanly ideal.
Anne Bancroft’s Ms Dinsmoor, the film’s version of Miss Havisham, is prevented, by political considerations, from being devastated (as was her original) by the loss of a man. Instead she is a lively old bird whose training up of Estella to be a heartbreaker only seems one in a long list of her eccentricities. Interestingly, however, she is the only person in the film who seems to have a moral lesson to learn. The last we see of her is as she calls out after Finn: “What have I done?” Unfortunately, we cannot be quite sure ourselves what she is referring to. Possibly it’s that she’s sorry now she taught Estella to be such a bitch. But it’s odd, in that case, that Estella herself never seems to be particularly sorry about it.
Nor, for that matter, is Finn ever sorry—so far as we can see—for his being embarrassed by Joe or disgusted by the reappeared convict, here called Lustig. He learns no moral lessons, is never humiliated except by Estella (her fault) and never has to recognize or amend a fault. In other words, this film has nothing left of Dickens but the title and a vaguely familiar story. It is of course unfair for us to judge it simply on the grounds of its having drained away the novel’s Victorian earnestness, but it has replaced same with nothing but empty gesture and banal language. When Magwich/Lustig turns up at Finn’s expensive apartment in the middle of the night and teases him with the information that he is the mysterious benefactor, Finn, who thinks he’s just let someone in to use the phone, begins to get nervous. “This is making me feel real uncomfortable,” he says, obviously hoping that a hint of the therapeutically “inappropriate” will drive the old man away.
The whole movie made me feel real uncomfortable.