Great Expectations

Feb 4, 1998 at 12:00 am

Great Expectations - the bitterly ironic title of Charles Dickens' 1860 novel about the evil adults do when they impose grown-up desires on unsuspecting children. Dickens knew by hard experience that a heart once broken is never mended; a past betrayed can never be redeemed. At the height of Victorian "greatness," those are the discomfiting truths he had to tell.

Director Alfonso Cuarón (A Little Princess) is not so much filming Dickens' novel as he is filming a reading of it (and also updating the story with a contemporary American setting). Dickens' boy-to-man dilettante becomes Finnegan Bell (Ethan Hawke), a dirt-poor kid from a Gulf Coast nowhere, whose artistic talents are both the making of his career and also the cause of his undoing &emdash; as manipulated by the two adult handlers in his life, played wonderfully by Anne Bancroft and Robert De Niro.

Love is what causes all of Finn's troubles, specifically his love for the upscale and elusive Estella (Gwyneth Paltrow). Dickens was deeply interested in the motives of his adult manipulators and also in the creation of a moral fable about the connectedness of all our actions. Cuarón's reading is less concerned with these darker elements of the story and more with arriving at a feel-good ending for the lovers. This is unfortunate, since he has all the materials at hand for something greater than he settles for.

In a stroke of genius, he has set Finn's self-defeating rise in the Manhattan art scene. Dickens showed how gentlemen are created out of thin air and an ample amount of cash; Cuarón makes Finn an art-world success the same way. And this is where the film really takes off. (Anybody who enjoyed Basquiat or I Shot Andy Warhol will find much to admire.) The investigation of cultural politics is knowing and deft, right down to Finn's paintings, done by Francesco Clemente.

But the film never exceeds the sum of its parts, admittedly all good. Casting, directing, acting are fine, especially the sensually adept Paltrow and Hawke; ditto the script. Camera work, musical score and production design are equally admirable. But a whole lot more could have happened than does. Cuarón gets everybody off the hook; he abandons the darker implications of his reading on the expectation that greatness lies elsewhere. Too bad.

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