Great Expectations (1998)

(Netflix Streaming, March 2016) I went into Great Expectations with less-than-ideal preparation, knowing only that it was directed by Alfonso Cuaron and that it was a contemporary adaptation of a Dickens novel that I unaccountably hadn’t read. That may explain why the film feels so odd at times, especially during a third-act revelation that left me shrugging my shoulders more than anything else. (It doesn’t help that, well, you don’t have Robert de Niro pop up for a five-minute cameo at the beginning of the film without it paying off at some point!) Ethan Hawke is largely forgettable as the main character of the story, a boy-artist who has a brush with Floridian aristocracy before settling for an ordinary life. Everything changes when he’s mysteriously called to New York to pick up his brush once more, and meets a striking figure from his past. On the other hand, Gwyneth Paltrow is radiant as the object of his affections—she has aged well as an actress with occasional sex-symbol claims, but circa-1998 Paltrow was something special and Great Expectations plays it up nearly as well as Shakespeare in Love. Director Cuaron’s talent is obvious enough to be striking even today—his sense of atmosphere is terrific, especially during the film’s first half-hour. As for the rest, well, the Dickens story is adapted to the late twentieth century, but some of the more melodramatic moments of the original remain, to some puzzlement by viewers used to more contemporary plotting devices. The film does run a bit long at times, but it’s not a bad experience thanks to Cuaron’s frequent flourishes. I suspect that my appreciation for Great Expectations would have been more favourable had I been more familiar with the original novel, though.

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