Great Expectations (1998) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski) and Tuna

Scoop's comments in white:

Then let us sit and tell sad tales of the death of kings.

When the age of feudalism was finally dead everywhere in Europe but Russia, and most of the kings had been deposed or their powers greatly diminished, the modern world arrived. The forms of government which replaced royalty were supposed to care more for the people than the kings had done because, after all, the people were the government, at least in theory.

Charles Dickens was one of the first major authors to talk about the failings of this modern world. How the leisure classes, the plutocrats, the industrialists, and the elected officials of the republic failed in their responsibility to improve the commonweal. How the poor ended up cursed by their birth, fated to serve the industrial revolution as mere cogs, producing children doomed to the same fate. In short, democracy and the industrial revolution proved to be merciless as masters, equally as cruel as the kings had been. Dickens himself worked as a common laborer in his youth when family fortunes plummeted, and although he hated this period in his life, it was to leave an indelible stamp upon his consciousness, marking his works with an understanding of and compassion for the fate of the common man.

In addition to his social and political activism, Dickens was probably the greatest comic and sentimental writer of his time. His exaggerated characters and situations served as marvelous tools to milk his audience for broad laughs and calculated tears. Remember, Dickens was a newspaper writer, and most of his novels were published in serialized form to sell newspapers. This cropped his technique and style in certain ways - he created a tone and style to appeal to the masses, and he created cliffhanger endings at the end of his chapters in order to maximize reader interest in the next installment. People write for many reasons. With many of the greatest artists, their writing is an expression of a story that just has to get out of them and find its way to the page. Dickens never wrote for art, but for commerce. He was a professional writer, and he intentionally pandered to the public's taste for sentimental stories. When he wrote, he didn't think as much about what was good as what would sell.

Do these things mean he was not really a great writer? Yes and no. Writing with mass appeal is certainly no sin. Shakespeare himself kept an eye on the groundlings as well as the court. Cervantes was a soldier-adventurer who told his stories in simple and comical ways that anyone could understand. But Dickens had the additional problem of artificiality. In a sense, every chapter had to end with something exciting or mysterious, and this forced him into some pretty ludicrous plot devices, in which all of Victorian London seemed to consist of about 12 people who kept stumbling into one another, and the mysterious person introduced at the end of a late chapter was sure to be someone introduced in an earlier chapter. Forget about being unkind to a beggar, because if you are it will turn out to be the king in disguise, or your long-lost father. And if you are kind to him, he will turn out to get rich and support you all your life in gratitude for the crust of bread you shared with him.

But Dickens was great in some ways. No writer ever educated us more about his time. There has never been a writer in any age, to my recollection, whose vision has so totally defined his era. Unless you are a scholar, your entire vision of England in the mid 19th century is seen through Dickens' eyes. It may or may not be an accurate vision, but Big Chuck put it there.

Do you have some vision of what it was like then for orphans and the poor? Do you know how they celebrated Christmas? Guess where those ideas came from?


Gwyneth Paltrow is naked in the scene in which she poses for Hawke, but the nudity is either blurred or obscured. The scene is sexy and beautiful, but there are no clear looks at nipples or pubes or buns.
The question is - what happens when you take Dickens out of his time and place? Do his themes have the universality to touch our hearts? Can we still see the broad comic energy when it is stripped from his social reality? Could be done, I guess, but would require great subtlety that was not present here.

I do like this movie for a lot of reasons.

  • The visuals are imaginative - grand comic opera portrayals of tiny man lost in a great industrial world, decaying mansions by the sea (the Ringling mansion in Sarasota was perfect for this), intense close ups of two mouths together at a water fountain, etc. It greates a great romantic version of a 20th century that never was, seen not as it really was, "but as I remember it"
  • The set design is stylish. I don't believe I've ever seen a movie make better or more lavish use of the color green.
  • Some of the individual scenes are supercharged with sexual tension. Paltrow and Hawke were perfect in their roles as icy tease and wide-eyed innocent.
  • I'm not a devotee of the swelling-music-rising-emotions school of filmmaking, but they use it quite effectively here in some scenes.

But ultimately the film was doomed by using Dickens' skeleton, by feeling bound to find 20th century parallels for his wild inventions.

Did you really believe the Paltrow character as a real 20th century person?

Let's see, she finally comes to Hawke's home, seduces him, lets him feel her naughty bits, then turns around and says "I have to go now". No explanation. Then the next day, Hawke finds out that she has left for boarding school in Europe, and he may never see her again. Years later, seeing the man she spent her entire childhood with, just hanging out in New York (hey, it's a small town), and not having seen him in years, she licks his face in the water fountain, then walks off and says "well, nice to see you again". She agrees to pose for a "portrait", shows up unannounced at his flat, and removes every stitch of her clothing although she is well aware of his lifelong crush on her. Just as abruptly, she puts her clothes back on and leaves when she gets bored. After finally sleeping with him and letting him be filled with all the emotions that such an act would generate after 25 years of desire, she disappears in the morning and the next thing he finds out is that she is on her honeymoon with another guy (Hank Azaria - Apu, from the Simpsons). Does all that sound like plausible 20th century behavior to you? I know some bitches, but nobody anywhere near that calculating. I know some naive guys, but nobody anywhere near so gullible as this guy.

What the hell was the mystery about the benefactor?

Perhaps the Hawke character can't figure out who his benefactor is, but we sure can. Ask yourself one question - if it isn't the convict, then why did they waste about 20 minutes of a 100 minute movie on a completely irrelevant sub-plot? There is no reason to introduce that character into Hawke's childhood unless he will play some further role in the development of the plot. Therefore, any viewer knows that Pip's ("Finn's") benefactor wasn't Mrs Havisham or whatever the hell they called her here, because there has to be some reason why they introduced the convict character in the first place.

Who gives a rat's ass about class division in 20th century America?

Let's face it, the social reality has changed. Anybody can cross the class boundaries. Anybody. You think Donald Trump, Ross Perot, and Bill Gates were born rich and/or powerful? Even the poorest of the poor can become the richest or the most powerful in the society. Mr Clinton essentially came from poor white trailer trash, as did several of his presidential predecessors.

There are countries where the Dickens concept might still work. If Hawke were born into the favelas of Rio, and Paltrow were from one of those unimaginably wealthy European families in Brazil, then the whole concept might fly, but it doesn't really click in this USA context. The U.S. is too much of a meritocracy, with nearly universal education and literacy, where just about anybody can get rich and/or powerful and just about anybody can aspire to marry just about anybody else. I submit Bobcat Goldthwaite as further evidence.

Where's the humor?

Dickens was a funny guy. Personally, I find that to be his one and only saving grace. But no laughs here.

And I won't even talk about the coincidences ...

... because they were just as silly in Dickens' own time. The convict has been living in Paris for ten years, and gets recognized and killed on his first day back, in New York, by old criminal associates. What are the chances of running in to anyone in New York City, but especially when his criminal connections were supposed to be in Florida, hadn't seen him in ten years, and couldn't even recognize him as his former self? (Hawke didn't recognize him at all.)

So, let's review kids. Dickens' strong points were his understanding of class struggle, his humor, and his detailed portrayal of his time and place and the stereotyped characters of that epoch. His weak point was his unrealistic and incredible plotting. So what should we do to make a Dickens movie? Skip the humor, skip the class issues, take it out of the 19th century, and just use his unrealistic, coincidence-laden plot. And then have his 19th century stereotyped characters running around the modern USA. Does that sound like a good idea to you?

No, frankly it was a terrible idea.

I don't mean to mislead you. This is actually a pretty good movie, but it is good in spite of its ties to Dickens, not because of them. But it is a good movie of its type, that being the ol' frustrated and hopeless love story type. If that's your thing, here ya go.

And it would be even better if they had just forgotten about the Dickens parallels completely and just told the story the way they wanted to tell it. West Side Story is a modern version of the Romeo and Juliet situation, but didn't try to come up with clever modern equivalents of all of Shakespeare's conceits. That's where this movie should have headed.

By the way, a special nod to Chris Cooper in the small role of Uncle Joe, for bringing a much needed natural down-to-earth performance into a movie that was too aloof.

DVD info from Amazon.

  • Widescreen letterboxed, 2.35:1. Quite a small picture in the middle of great black bars, but beautifully filmed.

  • no significant features

In all fairness, let me say that this is on my daughter's all-time top five list, and it is rated 7.2 at IMDb by girls under 18. So if you have teen age daughters it'll make a good family activity, and if you date teen age girls, it'll ..... well, I'll let you work that out on your own.

On the other hand, women's appreciation of the movie is inversely proportionate to age, and women 45+ rate it the most harshly of any group, even lower than all the male groups. So it's not a chick-flick, but rather a young chick flick.

By the way, the paintings and drawings in this film were done by Francesco Clemente, a real-life painting dude, and one of the greatest right fielders in history.

Great Expectations (1998) takes the Dickens classic and transports it, or at least a major sub-set of it, to modern Florida and New York. The hero becomes a promising artist played by Ethan Hawke. Gwyneth Paltrow plays the young girl trained since birth to break men's hearts.  The film narrative focuses on the love relationship between Paltrow and Hawke, skipping the artist's other adventures

Dickens always spun a great yarn, and he developed characters so well that you feel you know them personally. The movie accomplishes this as well. Anne Bancroft turns in a frighteningly believable performance as the modern equivalent of Mrs. Havisham, and Robert DeNiro also does a fine job, but the performance that impressed me the most was Raquel Beaudene as the young Estelle at age 10. The 111 minutes of running time passed very quickly for me, and this is the third time I have seen it. For me, a good story, good performances and great cinematography equal a great watch.

The Critics Vote

  • General consensus: two and a half stars. Ebert 3/4, Berardinelli 3/4, Maltin 2.5/4. Ebert and Berardinelli's three stars are misleading as a "consensus". The truth is that they were among a small minority that liked it, even though I was also in that minority.

The People Vote ...

  • With their votes ... IMDB summary: IMDb voters score it 6.2, consistent with the critical consensus.
  • With their dollars ... it wasn't a smash hit, but did OK. $26 million domestic, $16 million overseas.
IMDb guideline: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence, about like three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, about like two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, about like two stars from the critics. Films under five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film, equivalent to about one and a half stars from the critics or less, depending on just how far below five the rating is.

My own guideline: A means the movie is so good it will appeal to you even if you hate the genre. B means the movie is not good enough to win you over if you hate the genre, but is good enough to do so if you have an open mind about this type of film. C means it will only appeal to genre addicts, and has no crossover appeal. D means you'll hate it even if you like the genre. E means that you'll hate it even if you love the genre. F means that the film is not only unappealing across-the-board, but technically inept as well.

Based on this description, this film is a C+. Tuna says, "This is a very strong C+. If you like Dickens or this sort of love story, you will enjoy this one.

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