Sexy, clever, wholly original and
wryly observed, director Alfonso Cuarón's adaptation of Great
Expectations is one of those films a critic just can't help
falling in love with. (Ed: Not all critics . . .) Sporting
a young cast with the creative verve to take on a literary
classic, it is at once engrossing and utterly audacious. It's
also a movie that nearly didn't make it to the screen at all.
"At first I thought it would
be too difficult to translate to modern times," says
producer Art Linson, a Hollywood veteran of 20 years, whose
credits range from Car Wash and The Untouchables to Fast Times at
Ridgemont High. "It was only after watching David Lean's
version and re-reading Dickens that I realised the story had some
wonderful and timeless themes about coincidence, wanting things
you can't have, and trying to obtain respect. All these elements
provided the potential to turn a classic into a thoroughly modern
But rather than tackle familiar
territory or run up against comparisons with Lean, Cuarón &
Co take a different tack with their new film. Like Baz Luhrmann's
Romeo + Juliet and Amy Heckerling's Clueless (which, in case you
didn’t notice, was adapted from Jane Austen's Emma), Great
Expectations takes a classic love story and turns it into a
contemporary urban romance, creating an ultramodern,
hyper-stylised visual perspective for its tale of unattainable
that Alfonso could make it look like a 'big' movie, but that
the scale would come from his heart" Art Linson
Set in New York's downtown art
scene and in the backwaters of southern Florida, Great
Expectations follows the progress of Finn Bell (Ethan Hawke), an
aspiring artist whose world is dramatically changed by three
disparate strangers - the dangerous convict Lustig (Robert De
Niro), the beautiful Estella (Gwyneth Paltrow) and the eccentric
Nora Dinsmoor (Anne Bancroft) - each of whom unexpectedly and
relentlessly invades his life. Though Finn seems to have it all,
the one ingredient missing is, notably, himself.
"At first I couldn't figure
out how to update the story", says writer Mitch Glazer (who
adopted the novelist’s A Christmas Carol into Scrooged).
"It seemed so specific to Dickens' time, which was marked by
class conflict. But the more I thought about it, the more I
realised it didn't have to be about class at all."
realised I had an opportunity to do something completely
original with this script. I was struck by its many textures
and character arcs, and realised that our film would be more
an elaboration than a pure adaptation" Alfonso
Drawing on his own upbringing in
Florida and New York, Glazer instead recast the story as an urban
adventure. "Dickens, Magwitch and Miss Havisham seemed too
spectacular, almost untouchable to my ear," says Glazer, who
gave the characters a 20th-century facelift instead. Pip becomes
Finn; Miss Havisham becomes Ms Dinsmoor, a Palm Beach eccentric,
while Magwitch is recast as De Niro's Lustig, a prisoner on the
"The crystallising idea,
though, was making the Pip character Finn, an artist who goes to
New York to have his one-man art show and win Estella's love
through fame and celebrity," notes Glazer. "I thought
that modern equivalent would, in the end, give us more creative
freedom to explore all the characters."
With script in hand, Linson
eventually signed Cuarón (A Little Princess) to the project.
"I knew that Alfonso could make it look like a 'big'
movie," says Linson, "but that the scale would come
from his heart."
The acclaimed Mexican director
quickly rose to the challenge. "I realised I had an
opportunity to do something completely original with this
script," says Cuarón. "I was struck by its many
textures and character arcs, and realised that our film would be
more an elaboration than a pure adaptation… At that point I
couldn't say no."
core of this tale is the idea that we have very little
control over our lives and I could relate to that" Ethan Hawke
Neither could cast members Ethan
Hawke, Gwyneth Paltrow, Robert De Niro and Anne Bancroft.
"At the core of this tale is the idea that we have very
little control over our lives and I could relate to that,"
says Hawke, the rising young heartthrob from Reality Bites.
"For example, I started acting when I was 13, but very
little of it was my own doing. There are people who have been
incredibly kind to me and have changed my life, just as the
characters in the film changed Finn's life."
"I simply wanted to work
with Ethan," says Paltrow, who plays his love interest,
Estella. "When you're really good friends with someone, you
feel relaxed and open around them: it really helps you open up to
the work." For De Niro, the personal connection also proved
paramount. "I trust Art completely," says the actor who
of his fifth collaboration with Linson.
"Ca d'Zan had a magical,
larger than life quality because it was built by a circus
family," he says. But production designer Tony Burrough
(Richard III), still had to work some magic of his own. The
challenge was to transform Ca d'Zan and its perfectly managed
gardens into Ms Dinsmoor's dilapidated residence, Paradiso
Perduto (Paradise Lost) - a menagerie of rotting remnants from a
wedding party which never happened some 20 years earlier
(launching the character on her descent into madness).
"In the end this is a
story about destiny," Alfonso Cuarón
After five weeks filming in
Florida (Finn's fishing village was shot on nearby Cortez
Island), the production moved north to New York, which was, notes
Cuarón who lives there, "the perfect contrast to Florida.
It's the perfect picture of capitalism and, more importantly, it
is the capital of perceptions…"
For Cuarón, Great
Expectations’ unique look, its hip young cast and vividly
drawn characters all helped realise the film's timeless themes
while creating a wholly modern original.
"In the end this is a story
about destiny," he concludes. "It can take place any
time, anywhere. It's about how we think we're in control of our
own lives. But, in truth, all these things we do in order to
achieve our great expectations only drive us away from our true