Rated R - Running time: 1:51 - Released 1/30/98

Any attempt at bringing a Dickens work to the screen would undoubtedly be an awesome task, to say the least. His writing is so rich with description and local color, one almost has to read the original novel to get the full effect. This is, of course, true with many authors, but some lend themselves to the screen more ably. But in writer Mitch Glazer's attempt to modernize this Dickens classic, it seems much of the symbolism has been lost, forgotten, or handled so clumsily by director Alphonso Cuarón that the film's exectution is more of a tragedy than the story.

In this version, our "Pip" is Finnegan Bell, and he is the nephew of a Florida fisherman/handyman named Joe (Chris Cooper). The film starts some time in the seventies, when "Finn" is a boy (played by Jeremy James Kissner). Joe is solicited to garden an eccentric old lady's sprawling estate, and he takes Finn along. While waiting outside, Finn meets a mysterious girl about his age. Back home, Joe gets the message that Finn has been hired — not to garden, but to entertain the old lady and keep her niece Estella (Raquel Beaudene) company. And he is to be paid well.

When he arrives at the overgrown mansion he is dumbfounded by the place, by the beautiful but snobbish girl, and by the seemingly off-her-rocker aunt, Ms. Dinsmoor (Anne Bancroft), who apparently does nothing but apply makeup to her wrinkly face and dance to numerous different versions of "Besame Mucho." When she finds that Finn is a competent artist, she asks him to draw Estella. Sensing by his work that he is enamored with the girl, she warns him that should he pursue Estella romantically, she'll only break his heart.

Cut to 10 years later: Finn (Ethan Hawke) and Estella (Gwyneth Paltrow) are now accomplished dance partners, and he is still drawing her. Dinsmoor has changed hair styles but little else, and Finn is in love. But after briefly toying with him, Estella leaves for Europe without saying goodbye. Crushed, Finn leaves too, and returns to Joe and the fishing boat and abandons his artwork and his dreams of love.

Cut to 10 years later again: Finn, now in his late twenties, receives an anonymous message stating that he has been commissioned for more artwork. This time he is to have a show in New York City, all expenses paid. After some soul-searching, he decides that if he can get a free ride to New York for painting a few pictures, why not? So he goes, and quickly meets up with . . . guess who. Estella, his favorite subject, is living there now. Finn naturally leaps at the chance to have his heart shredded again, and so it goes.

It seems like many of the main themes Dickens employed in this story have been glossed over by Glazer's script and Cuarón's choices. The massive, decaying wedding feast, supposedly symbolic of the old woman's emotional and psychological decay, is hardly even shown here, although the original novel was loaded with descriptions of it. The characterizations of Estella, both by Beaudene and Paltrow, are so icy that one can't see why Finn would be interested in the first place. Only toward the end of the film does she come around to being human, but by then it's too late for us to care.

Also, Finn's discovery of the true identity of his benefactor is supposed to be a major turning point if not the climax of the story, charged with revelation after revelation. But Hawke takes it almost as if he's known all along; one might miss it if one hadn't read the book. And the turnabout of Dinsmoor's character near the end is so abrupt it is utterly unbelievable.

Great expectations are what many fans of literature may have for this film, but it might just as well be called Great Disappointment. ***

Copyright 1998 by John R. McEwen and The Republican

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