Alfonso Cuarón puts a steamy spin on Great Expectations

Alfonso Cuarón puts a steamy spin on Great Expectations

Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: Baz Luhrmann’s flashy adaptation The Great Gatsby has us remembering other hyper-stylized takes on high-school reading-list staples.

Great Expectations (1998)
To identify the strain of pseudo-literary confirmation bias in reviews of Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby, try a simple experiment. Compare the Gatsby pans to contemporary notices for Alfonso Cuarón’s boldly sensual Great Expectations and, glossing over the specifics, note the overlap: the tone of haughty disdain, the sniffing references to style over substance, the paragraphs devoted to Charles Dickens’ original that barely mention the film.

For the record, Cuarón’s version, written by Scrooged scribe Mitch Glazer, bears little resemblance to the novel. Shot by the great Emmanuel Lubezki, it’s bright and sunny, and openly sensual in a manner foreign not only to Dickens but to centuries of Anglo-Saxon tradition. When young Pip (or Finn, as he’s called here) and Estella touch tongues through a water fountain’s crystal stream, you can practically feel the ghost of your sixth-grade English teacher sprinting from the back of the classroom to pull the plug.

Although Great Expectations came before Yu Tu Mamá Tambien and Harry Potter And The Prisoner Of Azkaban, Cuarón had already shown facility with coming-of-age fables in 1995’s A Little Princess. The frank, though decorous, eroticism of Gwyneth Paltrow’s bare back, as admired by the adult Ethan Hawke, serves as a counterpoint to the movie’s more Dickensian grotesques, with Anne Bancroft’s monstrous Miss Havisham analogue leading the parade. But Robert De Niro’s Magwitch figure is a complex creation masquerading as a craggy bogeyman, in keeping with the way the film consistently creates expectations and then tunnels underneath them.

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