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  • 16:9 Enhanced
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  • Theatrical trailer

Great Expectations

20th Century Fox/20th Century Fox . R4 . COLOR . 107 mins . M . PAL


“I want the one I can't have… And it's driving me mad… It's all over, all over, all over my face…” - The Smiths, 1985

You’re probably already well aware that Hollywood officially ran out of fresh ideas some time during the early 1990s. One only has to look at the glut of movies that are reworkings of old TV shows, remakes of foreign and classic films or celebrity-powered creative vacuums (they even gave Howard Stern his own movie!) to see what’s going on. And movies even remake themselves - sequel rights have always been in movie deals, but now they sign the deal for a trilogy on the spot and make ‘em all at once to save cash. It’s as though Hollywood, having done all there is to do, is content to simply do it all again, watch the dollars roll in and contentedly eat itself.

Somewhere in the 1990s, someone thought it might be a neat idea to do new movies of classic literary tales - but hey, the kids didn’t even wanna go and see Mel Gibson in his Hamlet, so what does a studio have to do to get those cash registers ringing? Ah, of course - grab the classic story, get some hack to “update” it to the present day, add some attractive young stars and a few bare buttocks, throw in some over-the-top camerawork and then fill the resulting movie with pop songs that can be marketed on the Soundtrack Album You Need To Have (which, in turn, contains many songs that aren’t even in the film, but rather are “inspired by” it… but we digress). Bingo, instant hit. Theoretically. Well, the concept worked for Cruel Intentions (Les Liaisons Dangereuses for the Buffy Generation), succeeded in producing a decent movie with Clueless (Jane Austen’s Emma goes to high school) and resulted in a wonderful burst of sensory overload in Baz Luhrmann’s take on Romeo And Juliet. But where the dickens was Hollywood to go next? Why… the Dickens, of course - Charles Dickens!!!

First published in the middle of the 19th century, Great Expectations has been a perennial favourite of the entertainment industry - it’s been filmed many times before both for cinema and television, it’s had a musical made out of it (!) and even been put to use as a storyline for an episode of South Park. This 1998 revisiting of a story that’s familiar to almost everyone who ever went to school, though, takes the update-it-for-the-new-generation approach and runs with it. The story’s essentially the same, but the settings - and some of the names - have been changed. Here, young orphan Finn (that’s Pip, literature fans!) lives in a quiet fishing village on Florida’s Gulf Coast. He ambles about drawing things that take his fancy - until one day, he stumbles upon escaped criminal Arthur Lustig (Robert De Niro, doing his own famous psycho-shtick so well you’ll think you’re watching Tony Martin’s famous Late Show parody of the man!) and is frightened into helping the man - an act that will have repercussions later. For now, though, Finn becomes the playmate for Estella, the beautiful young daughter of a completely mental old rich woman named Nora Dinsmoor (Anne Bancroft, obviously having a great time saying “chikkaboom” a lot), who lost her mind when her fiancée left her at the altar years ago. Finn falls in love with Estella at first sight, and Estella commences what will be many years of her leading the hapless Finn on. After Finn grows up to become Ethan Hawke (a sensitive soul who listens to Tori Amos whilst painting) and Estella morphs into Gwyneth Paltrow, he is sent to New York to pursue his art, convinced that wacky Ms Dinsmoor is setting him up to be “upper class” so that he is suitable for pairing with the ever-teasing Estella. But things aren’t always what they seem…

Helmed by Mexican director Alfonso Cuarón and beautifully photographed by Emmanuel Lubezki (who also shot Sleepy Hollow for Tim Burton), this new Great Expectations is an immensely stylish affair visually - almost too stylish, as it turns out, as we never really click with these characters. Mitch Glazer’s screenplay allows little time for us to see into our characters’ souls; instead, it focuses on the little things. The fact that a good half hour is spent on Finn’s childhood before we even catch a glimpse of Our Stars speaks volumes; this section should either have been disposed of more quickly to allow more time for Finn’s adult journey, or should have offered more insight into his character and those of the people around him. Most are familiar with the basic story, but here it’s played heavily as a romance, with Finn - who craves the one he cannot have - even stooping so low as to yell Bryan Adams song titles at Estella’s building (“Don’t you understand - everything I do, I do it for you!” he whines meaningfully, to little effect). And when De Niro’s inevitable reappearance happens, it’s handled with all the storytelling grace of a Scooby Doo denouement.

There’s a lot to like here visually, of course (and the pop-song soundtrack, which includes a specially-written Tori Amos song and the wonderful Life In Mono by underrated UK band Mono, is unusually subtle) but all the pretty pictures, neato digital effects and wacky editing in the world can’t save this one from coming across half-baked. The cast are obviously enjoying themselves - especially Paltrow - but ultimately, it just doesn’t click. Still, if it’s eye candy you want, there’s 107 solid minutes of it here, intricately-designed end credits included.


Presented at its theatrical aspect ratio of 2.35:1 (this one was shot with anamorphic lenses) and 16:9 enhanced, Great Expectations looks, for the most part, quite lovely on DVD. The transfer is very well handled, and though it does seem a little heavy on contrast in places, most will be well pleased. If it looks a little “soft” at times, that’s for two reasons - there’s been no excessive edge enhancement used here at all, and occasionally “soft” seems to be the intended look anyway. The source material is very clean for the entire length of the film except for the opening credits, which suffer from some negative damage that implies there was a bit of careless film handling when those opticals were done. But once the credits are cleared, it’s a high-calibre transfer all the way. The layer change is placed fairly well, though it is rather noticeable. MPEG encoding is very well handled, especially given that there’s only a little more data here than would fill a single-layered disc - maybe space was reserved for extras that were ultimately never produced.


Mixed at Skywalker Sound, this Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack is very involving and extremely well staged, with copious use of the surround sound stage for both atmospherics and the occasional over-the-top audio moment. Surprisingly for such a recent film, though, there’s a fair amount of tape hiss present, and this often proves a problem when an effect is dropped in complete with tape noise, pulling the viewer out of the experience abruptly and reminding them that they’re actually hearing something that’s been artificially created. Overall, though, quality is good, with crystal-clear dialogue and full-fidelity music throughout.


You wanted extras? Sorry, no such luck here - all you get is a straightforward theatrical trailer in 4:3 mode (but letterboxed) with Dolby Digital 2.0 sound. The trailer, angling strongly towards the romance side of things, makes heavy use of the aforementioned Life In Mono - and also, strangely, Carter Burwell’s score from Miller’s Crossing!

The region 1 disc, released exactly two years prior to this region 4 version, appears to be identically featured.


Ultra-stylish but curiously empty emotionally, this Great Expectations was obviously made with good intentions but ultimately doesn’t serve to revitalise the famous Dickens story. It’s a hard story to screw up, too, but despite some good performances by a talented cast and lashings of over-the-top visual flair, the whole thing ends up seeming rather disjointed - and often very, very silly.

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      And I quote...
    "...if it’s eye candy you want, there’s 107 solid minutes of it here..."
    - Anthony Horan
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