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The key ingredient in this modern-day version of Charles Dickens's classic is director Alfonso Cuarón, who made the glowing, estimable A Little Princess. If you saw that (and you should), understand that Expectations has those ingredients (great sense of time, place, and timing) but adds modern music and sex appeal; the latter personified by the long-legged Gwyneth Paltrow.
Finnegan Bell (Ethan Hawke as an adult, Jeremy James Kissner at age 10) is the new version of Dickens's Pip. He's a child wise beyond his years, befriending an escaped convict (Robert De Niro) in the warm waters of Florida's Gulf Coast. Finn is also the plaything for Estella (Paltrow as an adult, Raquel Beaudene at age 10), the niece of the coast's richest and most eccentric lady, Ms. Dinsmoor (a fun and flamboyant Anne Bancroft). The prudish Estella likes Finn (catch the best first kiss scene in many a moon) but has been brought up to disdain men; she'll break hearts. As the object of Finn's desires, Estella unfortunately is a one-dimensional character, yet what a dimension! Clad in Donna Karan dresses and her long, sun-kissed hair, Paltrow is luminous. She and Hawke make a very sexy couple.
Mitch Glazer's script does better by Finn. He's a blue-collar worker with a gift for drawing (artwork by Francesco Clemente). Following his Uncle Joe's (Chris Cooper) honest ways, Finn grows up as a fisherman, thoughts of Estella and art drifting away in the hard work. When a mysterious benefactor allows him to follow his dream, Finn finds himself in New York, preparing for a once-in-a-lifetime art exhibit--and in the arms of the engaged Estella.
Filled with cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki's golden-drenched light, the film has an irresistible, wildly romantic look. Dinsmoor's place is certainly gothic, Estella and Finn's longing encounters glamorous. Cuarón uses an MTV-friendly soundtrack with a confident touch. Songs by Tori Amos and the band Pulp--along with Patrick Doyle's silky score--create passionate scenes. It all ends far too swiftly with a seemingly tacked-on ending (reflecting the book, as it happens) but the film is splendid storytelling. It's a stylish, sweet valentine. --Doug Thomas
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