The remaking of what is widely considered the most perfectly constructed piece of literature ever written could easily have become less daring and just plain impudent
. All of Dickens
’ descriptions and eccentricities and the plot and the characters orbited around the one innermost premise:
There’s that oddly paternal
type love between Finn (in the original novel, Pip
) and the convict, and of course between Finn and his Uncle Joe, there’s the malformed love between Miss Dinsmoor (originally Miss Havisham
) and her ward, Estella, and ultimately, the unrequited love
The film was based on Mitch Glazer’s rewriting of Great Expectations, which is something he had never actually aspired to do. When he was fourteen, he fell in love with an older girl. He was rendered speechless around her and preferred to let her do the talking as he stared into the sun. It would have remained an ephemeral junior high crush, were it not for an event one day, after a softball game; he walked to the water fountain. He lowered himself for a drink, and as he guzzled chilly water, she kissed him. “A beautiful, wet, soul kiss”. His first, and 30 years later he was still writing about it. He bestowed this memory upon Estella and Finn; the director Alfonso Cuaron shot a scene that is at once shocking, then rapturous. Finn is given a celluloid first kiss by the young Estella (played by Raquel Beadene) that is less importantly innocent, sexual, and unforgettable, and most significantly, breathtaking. The moment has a turbulence which marks the creation of a consuming passion. Finn is mesmerized; as she walks away he stands there bewildered and the look on his face says, “I’m going to love this girl forever”. Even when the characters are children, the film trembles with an intense sensation of adult emotion.
Pip's leap to London becomes a poor Florida fisherman’s step into New York, into the art world, funded by an undisclosed benefactor whom Finn (Ethan Hawke) assumes to be Miss Dinsmoor. It later turns out to Finn’s initial alarm that it was actually the convict from his youth who had been looking after him all these years, who made him a sensation. The convict (Robert de Niro), as he dies in Finn’s arms, tells him how the one good thing he did in his life was give any money he made, to the only person who had done ‘a really pure and good thing’ for him. He had saved Finn’s childhood notebook with all his dreamlike sketches of creatures from the shallow sea water, and he stained the pages with his blood as he leafed through it one last time. Finn's now spare, faint charcoal and watercolour paintings are in reality the work of Francesco Clemente.
Miss Dinsmoor is an eccentric old lady, a woman of tremendous wealth, a frozen face upon a sixteen-year-old figure. Dickens based her upon an insane old woman rummaging through rubbish bins in a wedding dress she had never taken off. Miss Dinsmoor was left by her beloved, and consequently devises a plan with full deliberation, to break another man as her revenge. She does this to Finn, through Estella.
"She'll only break your heart; it's a fact," Ms. Dinsmoor warns Finn. "And even though I warn you, even though I guarantee you that the girl will only hurt you terribly, you'll still pursue her. Ain't love grand?"
Her crumbling castle by the sea is a monstrosity of knotted decay amidst a sad wedding jungle. It is a gilded wreck with a ballroom decorated by dead leaves and dangling vines. In real life it is a Long Island mansion that is said to be haunted. A translucent lady was purportedly seen dancing on the second floor. Estella (Gywneth Paltrow) grows up here in some sort of chaotic, adult silence, where she speaks French and knows an array of artsy facts that all little girls of noble standing should know. She appears absolutely devoid of emotion and has been taught by Miss Dinsmoor from an early age that love is something to be avoided, that it would hurt her. But beneath her knowing swan's smile there is a flicker of sadness which we can see transiently on such occasions as when Finn screams at her, after she abandons him one last time: “What is it like not to feel anything?”
Miss Dinsmoor’s life ends up with her simply alone, insane, and destroying another young man's love. Through all her deliberation it appears, at the very end, that she was not conscious of the damage she would really do. When Finn takes her hand and places it on his chest and says in a faltering voice “This is my heart.. and it’s broken”, the same way she had done when he was a child, she seems to break, all over again.
I am also absolutely devastated every time I see the scene where Finn’s Uncle Joe embarrasses him at his New York exhibition. Joe (a very tender Chris Cooper) accidentally humiliates him outside of their familiar surroundings, and the moment of recognition on Joe’s face is overwhelmingly upsetting. And then his subsequent, almost brokenhearted, and yet still proud, resignation.
Apparently, on the day Ethan and Gwyneth shot their first love scene, crew members were almost embarrassed to watch them due to their convincing acting. Ethan reportedly put on a song by Roberta Flack, 'Hey, That's No Way to Say Goodbye,' to create atmosphere. The director said that they all felt like they were peeking where they shouldn’t, that it made people blush. The director has since become my absolute most preferred in terms of cinematic exquisiteness. In parts I actually sat there stunned by what my eyes has just been able to see. The entire film is the colour green. Everyone on the camera and off, wore something green. Gwyneth jokes, “Alfonso has a green problem. I think he's clinically insane, but in a very charming way." He says that green is the only colour he understands, that he can see other colours and they are alien.
I also like the score, and find myself playing it on drizzling days. It is beautiful and dark and orchestrated, and I most especially love “Kissing in the rain”.