Chanced upon a heavily sanitized screening of Great Expectations on TV last night. When it came out a decade ago, not too many critics were crazy about Alfonso Cuaron's adaptation of Charles Dickens' novel of transformation. There's just too much baggage: the original novel and the 1946 film version by David Lean. But seeing this again ten years later makes me appreciate how Cuaron was able to successfully take the themes of Dicken's novel and make it work in the present day context. There's the amazement of viewing a richly visualized film (always, there is green), the score by Patrick Doyle that enhanced the storytelling (and Life in Mono!), and the artwork by Francisco Clemente that helped crystallize the desires of Finn and put it in display for all the world to see.
Cuaron did fine work with adapting A Little Princess (1995) and he was praised for the visual texture of his work. A lot of the reviews of GE: 1998 also focused on the lushness of the scenery--Paradiso Perduto was literally an abandoned Eden with its ivy and weeds taking over Miss Havisham's doomed wedding party, the first person point of view of the novel was retained in the voice over--later revealed to be done for free by David Mamet, as long as it was kept a secret--and the fluid camera work that mirrored Finn's point of view that largely cast Estella as the object of his desire.
But this was just his second American film, three years before he did Y Tu Mama Tambien and much later than his Harry Potter venture. For a lot of critics, the shadow of the David Lean version loomed large over this Mexican director. It's only later that it becomes evident that Cuaron did much more than a film version of the novel and the 1946 film, he transformed that world and took the same desires and values and put it in a more contemporary setting. Cuaron took Pip away from England's marshes and brought him to a Florida fishing town, and from uncouth and common orphan to London gentleman, Finn sought out success as an artist in late 20th century New York.
Janet Maslin of the New York Times considers the switch to the American setting to be "adventurous and even apt." She calls Cuaron a great visual stylist, "capable of wonder even when its wilder ideas misfire."
Salon's Charles Taylor was quick to note that Dickens is accessible to a lot of people of different ages. Although we first see Finn as a child, what Cuaron emphasizes is the sensuousness and sexuality brewing underneath and brings this desire to the surface. In that first encounter at the Paradiso Perduto, when young Estella urges young Finn to drink from the fountain, and later on she herself drinks from the same spout and French kisses him, we can see that this is not just about a desire to go up the social ladder. Finn wants to become a gentleman so that he can stand on common ground with Estella, so that he may deserve him. He thinks this is his destiny, and when things start to go his way (an offer from a mysterious person to foot the bill for a one man show in a New York gallery), he mistakenly takes this to be the universe (and Miss Dinsmoor) urging him to go to "Estella's New York", get the girl and what he deemed to be his rightful place in society.
The key here is that Finn "thinks" this is what this all means. He is an unreliable narrator. In the opening voice over, he declares: "I'm not going to tell the story the way that it happened. I'm going to tell it the way I remember it." That he is a visual artist and we see a lot of his work also clues us in on the workings of his mind. The first time that Finn sketches the young Estella, the camera leads us to see Estella in parts--eyes, lips, nose, mouth. This is later echoed in the New York apartment when the grownup Estella poses for him. She takes off her clothes and asks, "Do you want me to sit or stand?" He replies with a "whatever." He doesn't care, what he sees is the ideal Estella, the curve of her neck, the swell of her breasts, the strands of her pubic hair.
Estella is forever the dream (or the delusion) that Finn is chasing. In "Not Telling the Story the Way It Happened: Alfonso Cuarón's Great Expectations," Michael K. Johnson notes this disconnect in how Finn perhaps refusing to see Estella as she is. Since this is his remembrance of how things happened, we cannot trust him fully even in his depiction of Estella as dream/object of desire. In Finn's remembrance, even Estella expresses distance when talking about herself, like in this dialogue as she leaves him:
FINN. What's it like not to feel anything?
ESTELLA. Suppose there was a little girl. She was taught to fear daylight. One sunny day, you ask her to go outside and play in the sun and she won't. How can you be angry with her?
FINN. I knew that little girl. I saw the light in her eyes. No matter what you say or do, that's still what I see.
ESTELLA. We are who we are. People don't change.
She refers to herself in the third person, in the first person plural, or even the more generic "people." For Estella, and for Finn's vision of Estella, there is no "I."
Even in the film's ending, seven years after the New York incident, Finn goes back to Florida and Paradiso Perduto and finds Estella, he still refuses to let go. Estella stands on the beach, the bright sun obscures her face, but she will always be girl in his paintings, bright eyed and lips parted ever so slightly, the girl in the plane looking down on the forlorn Finn drowning out in the rainy New York streets. And when she says, "Will you ever forgive me?" he replies with "Don't you even know me?" and takes her hand in his. It seems like he's never learned his lesson on "the fantasy and the wealthy." Miss Dinsmoor has already informed him early on, Estella would only break her heart. But the best he could do is to take our hands, place it on his chest and declare, "Do you know what this is? This is my heart, and it is broken."
For me, this adaptation brings Finnegan Bell closer to Fitzgerald's Jay Gatsby, who observes the green light representing the object of his desire from across the lake. No matter how bright the suit he wears or how high he jumps in the air, the Other will not notice, will not take heed, but he will not give up. This is a lover in love with sadness, and though we should know better, we also can't do anything but witness with knowing sadness that we know how this will turn out.
What follows is my favorite scene from the movie. It is Finnegan Bell's opening night. His show is sold out, he is now a successful artist in New York. But the present is unraveled by the appearance of a person from his past, Joe, the man who raised him in Florida. Joe is too loud and careless and basically doesn't fit in Finn's new sophisticated environment. When he leaves the gallery, note how Finn and Joe are positioned, up and down, in and out, but the past refuses to disappear from the present.