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.

Susan Sarandon described David Bowie as
peopleSusan Sarandon reveals more on her David Bowie romance
sportDidier Drogba returns to Chelsea on one-year deal
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Grey cradles Ana in the Fifty Shades of Grey film
filmFifty Shades of Grey trailer provokes moral outrage in US
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookA wonderful selection of salads, starters and mains featuring venison, grouse and other game
Louis van Gaal would have been impressed with Darren Fletcher’s performance against LA Galaxy during Manchester United’s 7-0 victory
The new dawn heralded by George Osborne has yet to rise
voicesJames Moore: As the Tories rub their hands together, the average voter will be asking why they're not getting a piece of the action
Dejan Lovren celebrates scoring for Southampton although the goal was later credited to Adam Lallana
newsComedy club forced to apologise as maggots eating a dead pigeon fall out of air-conditioning
Arts and Entertainment
Jo Brand says she's mellowed a lot
tvJo Brand says shows encourage people to laugh at the vulnerable
Life and Style
People may feel that they're procrastinating by watching TV in the evening
Rhys Williams
commonwealth games
Isis fighters travel in a vehicle as they take part in a military parade along the streets of Syria's northern Raqqa province
Arts and Entertainment
Southern charm: Nicolas Cage and Tye Sheridan in ‘Joe’
filmReview: Actor delivers astonishing performance in low budget drama
Life and Style
fashionLatex dresses hit the catwalk to raise awareness for HIV and Aids
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Senior Risk Manager - Banking - London - £650

    £600 - £650 per day: Orgtel: Conduct Risk Liaison Manager - Banking - London -...

    Commercial Litigation Associate

    Highly Attractive Package: Austen Lloyd: CITY - COMMERCIAL LITIGATION - GLOBAL...

    Systems Manager - Dynamics AX

    £65000 - £75000 per annum + Benefits: Progressive Recruitment: The client is a...

    Service Delivery Manager (Software Development, Testing)

    £40000 - £45000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A well-established software house ba...

    Day In a Page

    Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

    Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

    The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

    Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

    Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
    German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

    Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

    Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
    BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

    BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

    The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
    Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

    Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

    Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
    How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

    Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

    Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
    Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

    Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

    Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
    10 best reed diffusers

    Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

    Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Female boxers set to compete for first time

    Female boxers set to compete at Commonwealth Games for first time

    There’s no favourites and with no headguards anything could happen
    Five things we’ve learned so far about Manchester United under Louis van Gaal

    Five things we’ve learned so far about United under Van Gaal

    It’s impossible to avoid the impression that the Dutch manager is playing to the gallery a little
    Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

    Screwing your way to the top?

    Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
    Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

    Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

    Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
    Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

    Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

    The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
    The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

    The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

    Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
    US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

    Meet the US Army's shooting star

    Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform