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Great expectations

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When filmmakers today talk about updating the classics, chances are they have a music video format in mind. That's the spirit of the new pop overhaul of ''Great Expectations,'' but the director, Alfonso Cuaron, also has lovelier aspirations. With the same visual enchantment he brought to ''A Little Princess,'' Mr. Cuaron does turn the famous story into one Charles Dickens would barely recognize, complete with a renamed Miss Havisham (Anne Bancroft) campy enough to suggest Baby Jane in Las Vegas. The directorial approach is so bold and vulgar that it has no business working. But often it does.

Largely because Mr. Cuaron is such a voluptuous visual stylist, this ''Great Expectations'' is capable of wonder even when its wilder ideas misfire. Without resorting to purely random change, the filmmaker does dust some cobwebs off its radically abridged version of Dickens. Anyone who minds the loss of the name Pip (it's now Finn) or the substitution of pelican-filled Gulf Coast landscapes for English moors can be duly horrified and should assuredly stay home. But the switches made by this American version can be adventurous, even apt. And the film makes up in visual exoticism some of what it loses in character and context.

The bare bones that remain here are the story of Finnegan Bell (Ethan Hawke plays him as an adult) and the strangely significant figures he meets in childhood. Robert De Niro, giving the most successfully Dickensian performance in the movie, plays the mysterious convict who bullies young Finn into saving his life. Finn's chance encounter with this man (once Magwitch, now Lustig) makes no more or less sense than his summons to the overgrown Gothic palazzo where Nora Dinsmoor (Ms. Bancroft) lives in the past. Feminist update: this tragically unmarried lady is more festive than gloomy and no longer wears a tattered wedding dress. She's painted up and ready to party, and she's now called Ms.

At the Dinsmoor mansion, strikingly filmed at a Sarasota Bay relic built for the Ringling circus family, Finn becomes lovestruck at the sight of the beautiful blonde who will haunt him through the rest of the story. This is Estella, ravishingly introduced as a child and then seen dancing gracefully into the grown-up incarnation of Gwyneth Paltrow.

Though the film, being more visual than verbal, is especially weak in explaining Estella's enigmatic behavior toward Finn, Ms. Paltrow does turn herself into the elegant object of desire that the story requires.

Her presence is as coolly striking as her role (in Mitch Glazer's screenplay) is underwritten. Incidentally, this is one more film in which the heroine's posing nude for an artist is supposed to make her more fully defined.

Ms. Paltrow oozes such metropolitan sophistication here that it even makes sense for the film to follow her from Florida to New York. This, less convincingly, is supposed to be the trajectory of Finn's brilliant career in the art world. Thanks to limpid portraits of the cast members supplied by Francesco Clemente, Finn becomes the toast of SoHo and re-encounters Estella at her most bewitching. Mr. Hawke seldom registers anything more interesting than astonishment at Finn's good fortune.

With Chris Cooper, Hank Azaria, Josh Mostel and Kim Dickens playing supporting figures in Finn's story, the film moves through a series of spacious, romantically pretty settings that set the film's fairy-tale mood.

Even a New York subway where Mr. Cuaron sets the story's most melodramatically tragic event manages to gleam here. And the characters, especially Ms. Bancroft's, become less mannered and jarring as the film takes shape, moving decoratively toward the sunnier of two closing sections that Dickens wrote for ''Great Expectations.'' The author was made to revise his initially honest, gloomy finale to close this tale more palatably. Even in his day, when sugarplum storytelling like this must have been unimaginable, there was a taste for the Hollywood ending.
''Great Expectations'' is rated R (Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian). It includes profanity and one especially nonliterary sequence with Ms. Paltrow posing in the buff for her centerfold.
Date Added: 10/23/2012 by Glen Wood
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