Let's get one thing straight from the start: this isn't your typical cosy period drama. The title may suggest 18th century London, little match girls and chim-chimeny sweeps, but Great Expectations is set firmly in modern-day America – Florida swamps, aeroplanes, skyscrapers, baseball caps... And it's hard to believe that this film could go wrong, with three fine actors (De Niro, Bancroft and Paltrow) playing full-bodied characters penned by one of the best authors who’s ever lived.
But it has. Its biggest problem is its poor plot. More an elaboration of the novel than an adaptation, the first half is a string of coincidences. Director Cuaron (The Little Princess) establishes some intriguing ideas, such as Finn's semi-romantic friendship with the eccentric Mrs Dinsmoor. But once the story is swept away to New York, this relationship is never followed through, and the film becomes a puffed-up soap-opera/shampoo ad hybrid.
Matters aren't helped by Mitch Glazer's screenplay, which recycles one cliché after another. The voiceovers, where the characters narrate lines straight out of the novel, provide the film with some depth, but are grossly out of place on a Florida set.
Those of you hoping for a big dose of De Niro will also be disappointed. His turn as a convict, hindered by the lacklustre script, becomes a caricature rather than the sort of performance we've come to expect. Paltrow is convincing as the icy temptress, unlike the atrociously bland Hawke, whose expressions are mostly comical and devoid of depth.
Great Expectations is redeemed a notch by some vivid cinematography, which gives the film a surreal, fairytale feel, but it spectacularly fails to build on this grandeur, winding up a mass of poorly realised ideas and themes. Romeo & Juliet worked brilliantly; this is an insipid, lifeless ruination.
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A silly tale, perhaps because it's so loosely based on the Charles Dickens classic. Despite his very reputable cast and admirable visuals, Cuaron's great expectations founder in sugary American schmaltz. Impossible to take seriously.