Film: What the Dickens? Pip never saw Estella like this ...

The story may be a Victorian classic, but in Cuaron's `Great Expectatio ns' the cries of London give way to the roar of latter-day New York. By Geoffrey Macnab

When the screenplay for Great Expectations landed on his desk, the Mexican director Alfonso Cuaron wanted nothing to do with it. The prospect of making yet another starchy, 19th-century costume drama with women in bonnets and whisker-chopped men in top hats didn't appeal in the slightest. Besides, he points out, "David Lean had already made the perfect film based on the material".

Eventually, after having his ear bent by the producer Art Linson, Cuaron agreed to read the script. He quickly realised it was such "an irresponsible adaptation" that he could make the film with complete creative freedom. Instead of 19th-century England, the settings are now 1970s Florida and New York. The lead character, Finn (Dickens' Pip), played by Ethan Hawke, is a fisherman turned artist. True, the story line sticks close to the events in Dickens's novel. Finn still lives with his sister and his uncle Joe. There is again a shaven-headed convict (played with bristling menace by Robert De Niro). The soured old matriarch, stood up on her wedding day, is called Dinsmoor instead of Havisham and lives in a dilapidated Florida mansion rather than a Victorian pile. She has a taste for garish dresses and make-up, and likes doing the cha-cha. Anne Bancroft attacks the role with such overwhelming eccentricity that the memories of Martita Hunt's ghostly old harridan sitting by her cob-webbed wedding cake in Lean's film soon fade. "I saw Dinsmoor as a blend of Blanche Du Bois and Norma Desmond, with a bit of Miss Havisham thrown in. That character was one of the main reasons why I agreed to do the film," Cuaron says. "The great thing about Anne Bancroft is that she can be bizarre and completely over the top, but still seem emotionally grounded."

The plot may seem familiar enough, but Cuaron's version of Great Expectations boasts one key ingredient which Lean's version lacked. As he puts it, "you can't make a love story set in present times without the dynamic of sex". Estella (Gwyneth Paltrow, in a succession of Donna Karan dresses) is the elusive object of Finn's desire. The camera seems fixated by her. Every time she shakes her hair, the moment is framed in a fetishistic close-up. "I wanted to tell the story from an erotic and sensuous viewpoint," Cuaron explains, when asked why he chose to film his leading actress as if she were a siren in a shampoo commercial.

"Models super-emphasise their body language. Gwyneth did the same, but in a very natural way. It's a whole language of seduction."

Estella is supposed to be a fantasy figure. We see her through Finn's obsessive gaze. "In reality, in those early scenes, I'm sure that Estella was trying to talk to him, but he was only interested in her body." Beneath the sensuality and sexuality, Cuaron insists, Paltrow brings warmth and humanity to the part. The actress herself is not so sure. "Estella's icy; she's a bitch and she's manipulative," Paltrow joked during the Berlin Film Festival press conference for the film, "and I'm just like her - so watch out!"

Cuaron recruited Francesco Clemente, one of the darlings of the New York art scene, to do Finn's paintings. In most Hollywood films, he suggests, when a big star portrays a famous artist, "the art department comes up with these shitty paintings that you're supposed to believe are great". By using Clemente, he was able to avoid that particular pitfall. "I feel blessed to have Francesco help me. It's like having Picasso in the Forties doing the art for your film." Paltrow and most of the rest of the cast posed for Clemente in his huge, eerie studio in SoHo, New York. Paltrow had to pose naked, both for Clemente and for the cameras. "Obviously, I like to be clothed as a general rule," she says, but claims that she enjoyed the challenge of being cast as the temptress. "It was liberating in a way to play someone so overtly sexual." The paintings, which feature prominently in the film, are still owned by Clemente. "If we had paid him for every one, it would have cost more than the movie," Cuaron says. Cuaron's Great Expectations often seems like a handful of different films rolled into one. Its early, Florida-based scenes, shot in luxuriant colour and featuring child actors, could come straight out of a Disney kids' movie. ("But where else have you seen two 10-year-olds French-kissing?" Cuaron asks.) Finn's teenage courtship of the wealthy, disdainful Estella resembles something out of a John Hughes bratpack movie, while the satire at the expense of the New York art scene looks as if it was borrowed wholesale from Julian Schnabel's Basquiat. The climactic finale, in which De Niro is chased by his old mob associates along the subway, rightly belongs in a gangster movie. Finn's voice-over (written by David Mamet) sounds more in the vein of Mark Twain than that of Dickens. Cuaron insists that the mix of influences was what attracted him to the project in the first place.

It was not easy for a young Mexican film-maker directing his second film in Hollywood to cope with the exigencies of the studio system, and Cuaron didn't have final cut. "They didn't make me reshoot the ending, though." He acknowledges that it was intimidating working with De Niro. But the actor loves Mexico - and tequila. "We had a very good bond there," he says. "At the end of a day's shooting, we would go and have a couple of tequilas."

Cuaron started his film-making career as a 12-year-old brat with an 8mm camera. His first Mexican feature, the Aids comedy Love in the Time of Hysteria (1992), helped book his passage to Hollywood, where he made a well-received version of the children's classic, A Little Princess (1995). In the future, he says, he would like to return to Mexico. "But the film industry has disappeared there. It has basically died." He is shortly to start work on a low-budget independent film which he scripted himself, the story of an unemployed worker in upstate Michigan who has to deliver a car in Detroit, and takes his eight-year-old son along for the ride. Such gritty, blue-collar realism sounds far removed from the fanciful world of Great Expectations, which Cuaron shoots as a flamboyant, full- blooded romance. Whether he has been true to the spirit of the novel, is a question he doesn't want to answer. As he puts it, "anybody going to the film hoping to see Dickens or David Lean is going to be disappointed."

`Great Expectations' is released in the UK on 17 April.

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