Picks and Pans Review: Great Expectations

updated 02/02/1998 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 02/02/1998 AT 01:00 AM EST

Ethan Hawke, Gwyneth Paltrow

Classics are timeless. That phrase would make a swell catch line for a khakis ad campaign. In this case, though, it applies to Great Literature. Not only is a classic novel timeless, but as this contemporary version of Great Expectations shows, it can sometimes even survive time tampering. The movie century-shifts Charles Dickens's 1861 novel from Victorian England to modern America. The film doesn't exactly improve on the original, but the present day interpretation does work surprisingly well at least half the time. Call this Semi-Great Expectations.

Beloved by high school English teachers practically since its publication, Great Expectations follows the rising fortunes of an orphan named Pip. In this new version, Pip has been rechristened Finn (Hawke), lives on Florida's Gulf Coast and eventually becomes a famous artist in Manhattan. The novel's dotty Miss Havisham, a nut job since she was jilted on her wedding day decades ago, has morphed here into Ms. Dinsmoor (Anne Bancroft), a wrinkled glamor-puss clad in silk lounging pajamas who dances the samba and bellows, "Chickaboom, chickaboom." And Estella, Miss Havisham's ward and Pip's dream girl in the novel, is still called Estella (Paltrow) and remains an icy heartbreaker.

Dickens was a master at propelling plot and creating vivid characters, and director Alfonso Cuarón (A Little Princess) and screenwriter Mitch Glazer (Three of Hearts) are smart enough to stick by their source material. At times, though, you wish they had not been quite so faithful and had been more audacious in the ways they modernized the story. Still, their new vision of the tale is provocative enough that plenty of viewers will be inspired to crack open dusty copies of Expectations to compare and contrast—a worthy achievement in itself for any movie.

Paltrow is sensational. Her Estella has such razor-sharp edges, you suspect she hones herself daily just so that no man can ever catch her without, badly cutting himself. Hawke has a harder time of it with his love-struck Finn, never getting too much beyond making big puppy eyes. And Bancroft so overdoes her crazy crone bit, she could be channeling Norma Desmond from Sunset Boulevard. (R)

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