Ethan Hawke opens with some insipid, uninspired notes of narration. “I am not going to tell the story the way it happened,” his soulless ideas spring from the screen as a camera pans around a boy in a shallow sea. Where Great Expectations and Alfonso Cuarón fail is in the modernisation of the Charles Dickens classic. But modernity is not something to cower away from. Where Great Expectations offers a new era and generation of interest for the text, it fails to capture what few notes made it settle so well. It is nowhere close to the David Lean feature before it, and Cuarón must, surely, know that.
But how is he to know? With such a talented ensemble at his disposal, it is frightening how poor Great Expectations is. From Robert De Niro doing his best Cape Fear revitalisation to a Pulp B-side adorning the soundtrack. Like a Friend indeed. As glum and dishonest Great Expectations may be, it is the technical pull of the musical cues and score that make it that way. Heightening the drama by raising the tension of the strings on the soundtrack, a Dutch angle here or there and a menacing grimace on the face of the right villains. It all falls into place, but the placement is rife with issues and a strange dependency on nonsensical plot progression rears its ugly head.
There is reason to all the madness. “Loosely” based this film may be, it is loose with just about everything else it tries to spark. Why would young Finnegan help the man who threatens to kill him? Why would Hawke explain this, unrelated it must be to the workings of this streamlined story of love and the approach of madness. Make no mistake, Great Expectations is madness. It is the mark of insanity from Cuarón that Great Expectations is not only created, but finished. Hawke and Gwyneth Paltrow offer strange chemistry with one another, with Cuarón taking a disturbing level of satisfaction in seeing the two flirt and fight with one another. It is meant to be sexy, heavy-hitting and reigning in the new era of romance. But in reality, it comes across as seedy and inefficient, and at times terribly awkward.
Whether that is because of the musical cues or the asinine performances that are based so heavily on the desire these characters have for one another is unknowable. “Wipe your feet, on my dreams” Jarvis Cocker sings. Wipe your feet on Great Expectations, the doormat of adaptations. Loose and lucid, useless and frightful. Cuarón and this cast have no clue what to do or why they do what they do. It is the messiest collaboration to ever slither from the adaptive field of features. Grave mistakes are made, and the punishment of that is Anne Bancroft being made to appear in this. No credits should feature her and Hank Azaria. Two breeds of a different beast. But the beast within Great Expectations is Cuarón, that untameable hack commits to the idea of ending his career before it had even started. A miracle, and a good one too, that he continued on after this Hawke-led nightmare.