Wednesday, September 07, 2011

Great Adaptations III: 1998 Contemporary version, dir. Alfonso Cuaron

Here it is, kids, our modernized Great Expectations and the third instalment in Great Adaptations.
For this, we're all going to have to go back to the 1990s. If you, like me, were in high school, then this was very much like the Baz L. Romeo and Juliet: wherein it took a classic story you were studying and modernized it:

What the film is, at heart, is an exercise in obsession. What Cuaron takes from the novel is a strand that is prominent in all adaptations; but flashed viscerally to light here--- that of a young man fixed on an idea. Much as Magwitch ( here called Lustig) has set his sights in captivity to the realization of Pip (here called Finn) as a gentleman; so Finn is obsessed with his muse, the ice queen Estella.

Estella, in Cuaron's vision, is Finn's creative muse. She reaches him on more than one platitude and forces him to shave the past in hopes that his talent (more seen when he recreates the light she shines on him) will win him the success and fortune that will turn her head.

What the film fails at is reaching the heart of Dickens' powerful recalling of grace and redemption. No one here is redeemed, per se, rather their stories are tied with neat little bows.
"Like all happy endings, it was a tragedy.", Finn's narrative voice -over (near consistent in the tale ) informs us and we believe it to be: much so because there is only the hinting of a lesson learned. The sternest takeaway for Finn, for Estella and for the other peripheral characters caught in the web of their sensuous hold over each other, is that disillusionment is costly.

Visually, and as in Cuaron's other literary adaptations (namely Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban and A Little Princess, both worthy films with heartbreakingly lovely style), the use of colour infuses passion and stillness. It dissolutes the greying mansion belonging to the pathetically over-drawn Nora Dinsmore (this Miss Havisham; whose usage of lined makeup refers to Finn's over-exaggerated art form), and lightens the sea where Finn, in the opening sequence, putters along in a battered old boat. Not a blacksmith's apprentice, rather a fisherman, Finn and his Uncle Joe are reduced to finding odd jobs when times get tough. One of these odd jobs takes him to the over-grown garden of "Paradiso Perduto": Nora Dinsmore's decaying lair of lost paradise: Estella ushering us through stylistic snapshots of the Alhambra, of India, of riches gone to waste.
Here, the puppetry to which Estella and Finn fall victim at the playful cloys of Miss Havisham/Nora Dinsmore is more crassly apparent. Likewise, the basest dregs of Lustig's humanity play an interesting counter when Finn's expectations as a great New York artist are finally realized.

Thematically, as inferred earlier, this is a tale that sits well in a 20th Century context. Not century agnostic, the master brushstrokes of obvious obsession and lust and disillusionment are widely spread on Cuaron's canvas. Unfortunately, it is the slight idiosyncrasies that dust Dickens most powerful work. It is easy to look at Great Expectations through the lens of a tortured romance--- but it is so much more than the whole of its surface.

Lustig tells Finn that the hands are "the windows to the soul" and Finn's artistic endeavours certainly live true that statement; but the soul is much more than a fleeting kiss at a fountain or naked rendezvous with a girl unabashedly flinging her shirt to pose for a portrait.

This film has a lot of potential and, at its core, the prospect of a lot of heart. Finn wisely refers to an instance by comparing it to the most complicated of emotions: "Like love," he tells us, "it's completely undeserved." That statement is the truest to Dickens' intention. Yet, the love in Great Expectations modernized is a love borne of idea, fixation and obsession. This is true of the old novel; but the threads that sew the more problematic over-arching themes soften their blow to the reader.

Technically, the production does well at realizing a tale in a modern form. Finn's story as burgeoning artist, his awkwardly heartbreaking dismissal of his past, and of his Uncle Joe (as horrifying to behold against the New York backdrop here as it is in the London backdrop of the novel ), his crude awakening when Lustig appears at his door like a ghastly apparition and his horror at the instance he recognizes that Nora Dinsmore was not using him as a pawn to become equal to her cold ward, all play well here and all offer a deep comparative introspection when held up against their source material.

previously in "Great Adaptations": the more traditional re-telling in the 1999 BBC version

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