Saturday, July 19, 2014

Summer Reading: Great Expectations (1998) – Due to Name Change, This Week's Pun Is Cancelled

Did I not promise Summer Reading was back?

With that said, this was one of the adaptations that was already locked for this year's project, and probably one of the stranger entries as an adaptation.

Updating a classic story for a modern setting is always an interesting prospect, even before you factor in who's behind it. Adaptation in and of itself is already an interesting challenge as you transfer mediums anyway, so when you want to transfer a narrative to another time and place, it also means re-evaluating certain choices made within the original story to reflect on changes in culture and history.

Given how much of Great Expectations is focused on matters of class and upward momentum, I was  not sure what to expect from this particular rendition- Even the cast had me a bit uncertain.
Still, it's Alfonso Cuarón directing, so I was ready to give this one a fair chance.

I should say now – as I alluded to before, this is an adaptation that does a space-time shift of the narrative. Further, to fit the new setting, several names have been made considerably less British/Dickensian.

So I'll run through the changed names now just to save us some call backs later:

Dickens – Cuarón

Pip – Finnegan Bell ('Finn')
Miss Havisham – Nora Dinsmoor (the Havisham surname is now bestowed on Estella)
Magwitch – Arthur Lustig
Jaggers – Ragno
Bentley Drummle – Walter Plane

This about covers the main players for this one.

"Draw me like one of your British girls."

In looking at this one, I should note that my feelings of this as a film and my feelings of this as an adaptation run on two different tracks. In the interest of giving this one its due on its own merits first, let's start with just how this stands as a movie.

Just taken as its own movie, Cuarón's Great Expectations is kind of a split film. There's some elements of it that are actually quite good. Unfortunately, the areas it misses are such that it's hard to look the other way.

To start off on the good foot, let me say this: for a man who doesn't direct. that often, Cuarón does good work when he is in the director's chair. Even on this film- which isn't his strongest (that prize may continue to go to Children of Men)- he still manages to make it look very good. Between the camera work in several scenes and the cinematography by Emmanuel Lubezki, the film has a rich visual palette going for it, and is arguably its strongest point. In fact, the only part where I really had any issues with the direction on this movie was during one fateful scene, as Finn and Estella (Ethan Hawke and Gwyneth Paltrow) are having an intimate moment early in the film. The sequence has a dutch angle that makes sense at first for conveying perspective of Estella from where Pip is sitting – it does help establish their dynamic in the scene, and it's a well set up look. The problem is, a similar angle is then used on Pip, which doesn't really do much to convey his role in this dynamic. Instead, it makes the angles in the scene appear to be less thought out for characterization and more style for style's sake. Which is a shame since, this scene aside, the movie makes the most of its visual style.

Beating Battlefield: Earth to the inappropriate use of Dutch angles by a good two years.
Suck it, Travolta!

Besides the camera work, many of the supporting cast members are well chosen. In particular, I have to give shout outs here to Chris Cooper and Anne Bancroft. In the case of the latter, while I had some issues with how Bancroft's character was rewritten, I definitely can't fault her for her part in this – for the part she's given, she plays the role quite well. The result is a good level of eccentric without going completely overboard. It's not the bitter vengeful recluse that her character started life as, and the film wants us to believe is still in there, but for playing a strange loner, Bancroft gives her a sort of weird energy that keeps her from feeling like just a caricature. Cooper, meanwhile, offers a bit of a more grounded variant on Joe for the updated setting. Where the original Joe is a simple-minded blacksmith, with a speaking style that wouldn't really hold up well here, Cooper's Joe is a fisherman and a blue collar worker – a role he plays with a very easy-going air. It's a shame his arc is so pared down in this version, because Cooper really does a good job with capturing why Joe is considered one of the few genuinely good people in Pip/Finn's life. The rest of the supporting cast also help carry the movie, including Hank Azaria in a very buttoned-down turn and Robert DeNiro, from when he was still actually acting instead of just embracing an archetype.

"Okay, kid. Unless it's Scorsese, do NOT let anyone know you saw me!
Got it?"

Finally, I have to admit – the soundtrack to this movie is actually pretty solid for the era it was made. It's not one that will go down with the all time greats, but it still keeps the film moving along pretty well for the most part, in particular with contributions by artists such as Iggy Pop and Tori Amos.

Okay, that covers the pros- now on come the cons.

Remember how I discussed how the supporting cast in this are among the movie's stronger parts? Sadly, this isn't the case with the leads. I'm still not sure what it is about Ethan Hawke that either motivates or demotivates him in his acting. I know he can work well with certain films, as proven by his collaborations with Richard Linklater and the movie Gattaca. In this, however, he's rather flat. I could partially understand this by nature of the fact that the character he's being written from is very introspective. Most of what we know of Pip in the book is not from what he does, but what he intimates to us through his recollections. Unfortunately, even the attempts to flesh out Finn through voice-over narrations (ghost written by David Mamet) don't feel like they fully connect. They make for some nice prose, but they seem to be running on a different track from what we see on screen. Meanwhile, as the cold, but beautiful pedestal constantly out of Finn's reach, Paltrow's Estella alternates between being a good idea and a bad idea. At the start when she's supposed to be completely detached from Finn, Paltrow fits fairly well. The problem comes when she's supposed to start warming up to him and eventually play on his emotions – a plot this version never really seems all that committed to. For as much as this movie is interested in making a deal of Finn and Estella's romance, there really isn't much chemistry between them.
This is where I'm gonna have to also touch on the film as an adaptation, because it does partially tie into my issues with this film's writing. I do have to give Cuarón and Mitch Glazer some serious points for ambition, because this is an interesting idea. The problem is, a lot of the time it feels more like the story is a jumping off point for their own entirely different story, one where Pip/Finn is a talented artist who just needs a lucky break and a greater emphasis is made on romance. Now, this wouldn't be a bad idea  if it was well-written in its own regard. The problem is, it rushes so quickly through its own story that many characters are essentially fast-tracked through their developments. Most egregiously in this regard is when Bancroft's Ms. Dinsmoor finally realizes just how badly she's ruined Finn's life. In the original story, we see this played out in a few visits as Pip realizes how Estella has now turned against her benefactor, leaving the old woman alone again. In this case, she turns up in the city, Finn confronts her and lets her know how Estella broke his heart, and she caves in like the proverbial house of cards. Bancroft makes a game effort to sell the regret, but it doesn't change the fact the road to that reveal is so rushed it feels arbitrary.

I know sequels are all about pushing the envelope, but I am REALLY not getting a good feeling about this sequel to The Graduate.

As a movie, I find it an interesting, albeit flawed attempt. As an adaptation, the film is a big disappointment. Like I said at the start of this project, there's a lot of little events one can play with in looking at Great Expectations, but as an adaptation, it is first and foremost on Pip. It's his growth, both into class and into an adult and more rounded person. His feelings for Estella are certainly a part of that, but ultimately he still has a life beyond just her. In this film, that is the only real relationship he seems to have. Sure, there's still Joe at the beginning and end, but without characters like Herbert Pocket or Wemmick on board, this means Pip in this case spends the bulk of his time fixated on his relationship with Estella. Even more perplexing since it was never reciprocated in the original book – Pip falls hard for her, but Estella always keeps him at an arm's distance. Seeing her not only reciprocate here, but actually initiate sex on one occasion just feels VERY out of place.

Also, I'm not sure why the drinking fountain was deemed the best place to initiate not one but two French kisses, but this film apparently was pretty sold on the idea.

The sad part being, again, I could live with this much of a departure from the source if it was done well. Unfortunately, a rushed script and weak leads leave the whole thing hollow at the center. Which is a shame since, as I said, there are some elements of this movie I actually really appreciated.

In all, it's an interesting experiment, and I will continue to give Cuarón and Glazer points for making the attempt. As it is though, its weakness is in a crucial place, and the strengths of some good acting and some great directing can only undo just so much of the damage.

However, for an adaptation I approached with skepticism, this was better than I expected. Still not great, but it at least had more to offer for it than I initially expected. If nothing else, this DID further convince me I need to look into more of Cuarón's filmography, because even back then, the man knew his way around a camera.

That's two in. The next entry is in two weeks. In the meantime, keep an eye out – episode two of The Strain and another film writeup to follow in the next few days.

Till then!

No comments:

Post a Comment