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Not So 'Great Expectations'

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 30, 1998

  Movie Critic

Great Expectations Ethan Hawke desires Gwyneth Paltrow in "Great Expectations." (20th Century Fox)

Alfonso Cuaron
Gwyneth Paltrow;
Ethan Hawke;
Hank Azaria;
Chris Cooper;
Anne Bancroft;
Robert De Niro;
Josh Mostel
Running Time:
1 hour, 52 minutes
Under 17 restricted

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If there's any hope of enjoying "Great Expectations," you'd best lower 'em. Start off by purging Charles Dickens from your mind. You must not think of the 19th-century English author whose novel was the basis for this movie.

While the movie, which stars Ethan Hawke (another totally excellent author of his time!), Gwyneth Paltrow and Robert De Niro, is passingly reminiscent of its literary source, it's so modernized, so retrofitted (maybe "sampled" is the word) for the MTV nation, you'll have to experience the drama in a different way.

"I'm not going to tell the story the way it happened," narrates Finn (Hawke), the central character, at the beginning. "I'm going to tell it the way I remember it."

That's the disclaimer, right there. It's telling you to unplug your mind and rock to the rhythms, 'cuz there's no book report due on this one.

Finn (that would be Pip, oh insistently literate ones) is a preteen Gulf Coast beach bum who lives with his fishing uncle (Chris Cooper) and has incipient artistic inclinations. Wading in the ocean one day, sketchbook in hand, he's accosted by an escaped convict (De Niro), who demands assistance. He orders the kid to bring him food and something to break his ankle chains.

When Finn (played as a boy by Jeremy James Kissner) returns with the goods, the convict orders him into a motorboat and heads for Mexico. But the Coast Guard patrol intercepts them, leaving the convict hiding behind a buoy and Finn more than ready to return home.

Shaken from the experience, Finn gets on with the rest of his life, which includes regular visits to a neighboring, run-down mansion called Paradiso Perduto. The owner, an eccentric woman called Miss Dinsmoor (Anne Bancroft) who (like Dickens's Miss Havisham) lives in a state of jilted mourning, invites Finn to return every week to play with her beautiful, diffident niece, Estella (played at this early stage by Raquel Beaudene). After an erotic kiss at the water fountain, and an extended dance sequence, these kids grow up to become, well, Hawke and Paltrow.

When Estella goes off to Europe (anyone who says "Quel dommage" in casual conversation ought to be ordered to go to Europe), Finn puts her out of his mind. Fate brings them back together seven years later when Finn receives a large sum of money from a mystery donor who also sets him up with a Manhattan apartment and his own gallery show in SoHo.

Finn, now an aspiring New York sensation, bumps into Estella, who's Euro-trashing around the city and trying to avoid marriage to an unsuitable priggish suitor. Round 2 of their romantic union is underway. As the two significant grown-ups in the film, Bancroft (her face grotesquely done up in pancake makeup and wrinkles) and De Niro (doing his tight-lipped, eye-glaring De Niro thing) are little more than respectful supporting acts. The greatest thing to be said for "Great Expectations" is its understanding of its audience's needs. Life unfolds in a sort of music-video shorthand, whole lives flitting by in a melange of beautiful images and sensual music. As Paltrow struts her ermine-like, barely clad body and Hawke sketches and salivates, you're seeing (as Estella might put it) the movie's prime raison d'etre. There's nothing wrong, nor particularly right about the experience. It just sits there, like a Nike ad.    

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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