If you didn’t understand English, this would be a great movie to see anyway. The cinematography is outstanding. It is fluid and graceful, enamored and lightheaded. At times the widescreen shots are composed to resemble the main character’s paintings. And within each shot is a fully textured world of birds or moss or art.
Against the swampy Florida setting is the modernized retelling of Charles Dickens’ story about a poor young man with a wealthy benefactor.
Ten-year old Finn (Jeremy James Kissner) grows up visiting his friend and tormentor Estella Dinsmoor (Raquel Beaudene) once a week. Actually, it’s Estella’s eccentric aunt (Anne Bancroft) who requests, and pays for, his presence each week. Finn uses the money to keep him in sketch books, paints and brushes.
Mrs. Dinsmoor asks young Finn what he thinks of Estella. “I think she’s a snob,” he replies. “I also thinks she’s pretty.” Mrs. Dinsmoor warns him at the age of 10 to be careful about falling for Estella. “She’ll only break your heart, it’s a fact,” she says.
When they reach high school, very close to graduation, Estella (now Gwynneth Paltrow) complains to her aunt that she doesn’t have a date for a big party. Finn (now Ethan Hawke) still has a crush on her and gallantly volunteers for the job. Afterwards, in one of those dizzying displays of passionate cinematography, the shy and awkward Finn almost wins the girl of his dreams. Before he knows what’s happening and before anything can happen, she is out of his house, out of the country, and out of his life. Mrs. Dinsmoor’s prediction came true.
Six years of Finn’s life zip by. Disillusioned, he gives up on girls and on painting, choosing instead a life of fishing with his uncle Joe (Chris Cooper, recently in Lone Star).
The story picks up again when Mr. Ragno (Josh Mostel), a lawyer, approaches Finn. Ragno is acting on behalf of a wealthy benefactor who wishes to remain nameless, and who offers Finn a New York studio and a one-man show of his work. After a quick stop to carefully thank Mrs. Dinsmoor, he is off to the big city.
In New York, Finn runs into Estella. Finn finds he still has a crush on her, and when she agrees to model for him, he is ecstatic. The scene of him sketching her is another one of those unabashed sequences of passionate cinematography. As before, Estella abruptly walks out the door before anything can happen, leaving Finn bewildered and frustrated.
Turns out she already has a boyfriend. Walter (Hank Azaria) is wealthy and therefore, in Finn’s mind, better deserving of Estella’s affections. When she tells Finn that she’s getting married, she practically dares him to object, but Finn still feels like he hasn’t earned his fame, or the ability to make her a better offer. If either of them were more forthright, they might make each other happy, but their natures and their different-class upbringings work against them.
I haven’t read the book, but the story seems to follow the original pretty closely (based on a comparison with David Lean’s more conventional adaptation, and on other reviews). The modernizations actually improved the story. For example, in the original, Pip (renamed Finn) is sponsored not as an artist but as a monied gentleman. By giving the character a vocation rather than a status, screenwriter Mitch Glazer makes him more approachable. Glazer also made Estella’s rejection of Finn less cruel and more situational. That may have diminished our understanding of Estella’s aunt, but the movie is better off with two characters than with a hero and a villainess.
A friend of mine criticized the movie for trying to be too artsy, but I disagree. Cuarón portrayed the New York art scene with just enough derision to make it clear that he wasn’t going to bow to it. For example, at a party there is a wandering opera singer, as irksome as the wandering mariachi bands in schmaltzy Mexican restaurants. In Finn’s agent’s gallery, the current exhibit is belly art: human bellies poking through holes in white, square pillars. I can’t remember when I’ve laughed so hard as when I saw that scene.
The movie has a tidier ending than you might expect, and it doesn’t seem to quite fit. Then again, the original ending was unsatisfying in its own way, so maybe nobody has figured out what the right ending is. (Dickens even rewrote his own original ending at the urging of his friends). But the rest of the story is wonderfully told and well structured.
If you aren’t familiar with the story, then the structure is particularly interesting, especially toward the end. The film is highly recommended to you. But even if you know the story, this adaptation is beautifully photographed and lovingly decorated, and that is reason enough to recommend it.