Review: Great Expectations (1998)

I watched Great Expectations the other night. The movie with Gwyneth Paltrow and Ethan Hawke, directed by Alfonso Cuaron. If you have read the novel, or if you are as far behind the movie times as I am (it was released in 1998), you might want to check it out.

Ever since I heard of this adaptation back in 2008, I have been searching for it everywhere. (As many of you might have guessed from reading this blog), I kind of have an obsession with film adaptations of 19th century literature. Luckily, a friend of mine had a copy of the movie on hand, and I was able to borrow it from him and enjoy it myself.

An alternate version of the cover (from Google Images)

Let’s face it: Dickens is usually depressing. After all the torture he puts his readers through in small victories for each character, and long-winded (but frequently beautiful) descriptions of every atmospheric detail of the setting, he rarely ever offers a hopeful end for his primary characters. He  certainly does not give Pip a happy ending in Great Expectations.

I have always had a love/hate relationship with Great Expectations the novel- although I do acknowledge its genius, I find reading it absolute torture emotionally (which, I also acknowledge as part of the genius). Pip and Estella are never really redeemed, and may only get worse and worse. There are not many characters who readers can connect with that don’t get slapped in the face by life, or Pip, or Estella. By the end of the novel, I always want to yell at them all, especially Pip.

In contrast, this newer adaptation of a similar story, unexpectedly set in a contemporary age, in a location between Florida and New York city, gives its characters much needed humanity, and I would argue, redemption. I did not want to yell at Pip or Estella after finishing the film, yet my heart felt similarly broken to how it feels after reading the novel, and throughout the movie I was also annoyed with Pip quite a large percentage of the time (as it should be).

I did not expect to like this movie very well, but before and after the first hour, I felt continually interested in it. The director and actor choices were really fascinating. I usually never say this, but I may like this movie as much, if not better than, the book, if only because I felt less debilitated after it was over. The movie made many of the same points as Dickens does, but was also more hopeful for the state of humanity. I also loved that Pip became an artist, and the beautiful messages that the artwork was used for throughout the film. It felt rich, complex, and not entirely hopeless, and for that, I was grateful.

Although it is set in America, something that bothered me at first, the storyline and the character motives were still pretty well-drawn. There are many differences between the film and the book, as there always are, yet the characters retained their integrity and had enough similarities to the originals that they were highly recognizable.

Another hesitation I had that was overcome while watching the movie, was that the actors are so well known I was wondering if I would believe them in their roles. However, I was extremely impressed with the acting and I actually think that the difference in setting from the original was a smart choice. Giving the adaptation some spatial distance was effective, as it both gave homage to the old while creating a new piece of art altogether.

My favorite parts of the film surrounded Miss Havisham. The woman who played her as “Miss Dinsmore” (Ann Bancroft) was an amazing actor. The Havisham role was portrayed with incredible and eccentric detail, and her broken down mansion was stunningly recreated in a very Florida way, wedding tables and all. Even though I didn’t know exactly what to expect from her modern doppelganger, I felt that the exploration of her insanity was even better played out in the film than it was in the book. She was not just tortured from being stood up on her wedding day. Dinsmore was shown to have a severe mental disorder and a drinking problem on top of that lasting grief and self-induced heartbreak. She also was shown to have way too much money and time on her hands. There was also a lot of creepy sexual tension and lack of boundaries in the film coming from Miss Dinsmore, which I feel Dickens did not point to quite as much, but made total sense with her character. In the film, Miss Dinsmore wants to destroy both Estella and Pip through creating this alternate (and very weird) space for them all to exist in misery and be motivated by their obsessions to both possess and destroy one another. Her character was just as terrifying and disturbing as Miss Havisham’s was, if not more so.

Miss Dinsmore and Pip drawing

There is also an amazing part of the movie, that had to be my favorite. **Spoiler alert** Pip (Finn) goes to see Estella and profess his love for her, but instead finds Miss Dinsmore (Havisham). There she tells him of Estella’s marriage to another person, all part of her cruel and scheming plan to use Estella as revenge for her past, as a vehicle to break mens’ hearts. He takes her hand and puts it to his chest, saying “do you feel my heart? It’s broken.” This mimics an earlier moment in the film when Miss Havisham says something similar to him to performatively gain his pity, and is his second act of defiance against her in the film.

I loved the portrayal, and was so captivated by Anne Bancroft’s performance that when she was on screen I almost forgot about the other characters.

Parts that were left out included: more tension between Pip’s past and present, and his inability to feel truly comfortable in either, Estella’s second marriage, the final realization about the criminal (won’t give too much away in case you don’t know the story), his relation to Miss Havisham, and Pip’s anger towards him were either left out or diminished.  Pip’s name is changed to Finn (short for Finnegan), which I thought was really interesting considering the tense relationship between Ireland and England (where the novel was written) in the 19th century.

There were also certain things added to the movie version that were not in the original story line, such as Pip as artist (painter), negative consequences of Pip’s actions on his family, and Pip’s isolation from his home community when he comes back to visit. I really liked that Pip was an untrained artist, but that his pictures were still impactful. I guess the drawings and paintings were done for the movie by Italian artist Francisco Clemente, who has become quite famous from it.

Finn's (Clemente's work) depiction of DeNiro's character

Watching this movie was a very weird, and very singular experience for me. It was beautiful, and also felt revelatory in a lot of ways.  I wrote for hours after watching this movie, and wanted to start drawing again (it’s been a few years since I just sat for hours and did nothing but draw- writing has become my primary form of artistic outlet).

Maybe it was the sleep deprivation, but contrary to some of the bad reviews of the film, I found the adaptation very inspiring. Even though I am enthralled by adaptations, such a positive reaction to one is unusual for me. I would highly recommend it to all adult viewers.

Here is the trailer: 

I would give it 4.5 out of 5 stars, for despite all of its problematic elements and loose ends, and the fact that it is set later than 100 years after the original on another continent, it keeps that same Dickensian mood, and the singular and almost dreamlike tension/ obsession that Pip feels throughout the novel would be very difficult to achieve in film.

I would suggest watching it with a glass of water (a theme throughout the movie).

Hope you can get inspired,

Miss E

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15 comments on “Review: Great Expectations (1998)

  1. I really loved this movie. Normally I would grumble, like always, that the book is better than the movie.. but I feel like they stand on their own and are pleasing on different levels. Good stuff!

  2. If your looking for another one of those Ethan Hawke contemporary adaptations, check out his version of Hamlet. Ophelia’s crack up scene is perhaps my favorite rendering, though the movie does bastardize some other moments (like hte “To Be” scene…). Thanks for the post!

  3. markyslashlevy says:

    Excellent story, and very enjoyable blog to read!

  4. This is a film I know. Also the story of Miss Havisham can be retraced back o Sydney, Australia and the story of a woman who used to frequent St Stephens church in Newtown. She would arrive every day in her wedding dress (waiting for her love/fiancé) who had sadly passed during the war. Apparently Dickens son travelled to Australia and (must of) relayed the story to his father.

    They were intending to write an opera/librettonbased on the story too…

  5. Thanks for this review. I will have to watch this movie – I wasn’t aware of it.

  6. I recently watched the serialised tv version. It was mush less edgy than the film sounds. Pip and Estella looked like they were set to live happily ever after.

  7. I thought that the recent BBC adaptation was very good. Beautifully shot.
    FM

  8. mollyspring says:

    This movies came out my freshman year of high school just as I was reading Great Expectations in my English class. I loved it, and it made me love Dickens.

  9. Susana says:

    I love the sequence in which he draws her to the song Like A Friend, by Pulp. The rest of the film is so-so. Agree on the BBC series though.

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