After the film's childhood preamble, it jumps ahead and we find Finn as a teenager still in love with Estella, now played by Gwyneth Paltrow. He remains goodhearted and working-class; she's still a snoot who enjoys torturing him with her flirtations. You'd think that the intervening years would have led to something more interesting than this. Smitten, teased, rebuffed, Finn renounces his painting and lives the fisherman's life, but a mysterious benefactor -- presumably Ms. Dinsmoor -- arranges for him to relocate to New York and put on a one-man show.
There Finn reconnects with Estella. Virtuous and poor, he becomes the toast of the New York art world, but he's not happy with his newfound fame and riches. Dazed and bedraggled, still taunted by Estella -- who offers herself as a nude model for his show -- he's a bad advertisement for the good life.
Finn is such a mope head that it's difficult to care about his rite of passage. His paintings and drawings are genuinely good -- they are actually the work of Francesco Clemente -- and yet he gets no solace from his gifts because he has, in his words, "cut himself off from the past" and "reinvented" himself. We know what's coming: his renunciation of his big-city ways. We're meant to applaud his turning his back on his art -- an odd stance for the artists who made this film to take.
Great Expectations is almost touching in the way it dredges up vintage cliches about the humble poor versus the venal rich. But if you're going to play this game, you should at least play it big -- like, say, Titanic, which also features a poor gifted artist who pines for a society girl. (He paints her in the nude, too.) Great Expectations is halfheartedly socially conscious. Cuarón dutifully sets up a rich-vs.-poor morality play, but he's not the kind of artist who's good at carrying out social agendas. He's too generous for that. The sequences involving the New York art-gallery world ought to release his imagination -- after all, it's another phantasmagoria for him to explore. But because the film is rigged against that world, it comes across as dank and cryptlike. Didn't Cuaron or Glazer ever drop in on a Manhattan art opening? The bloodsuckers may be out in force, but at least they've got blood.
All sorts of opportunities for social observation in Great Expectations sail blithely by. Finn, for example, carries on like a prole sufferer on his way to hitting it big. If the film were sharper, it might point up the comedy in this situation: Finn has inadvertently created the perfect persona for art-world celebrity. But it's difficult to care about Finn; he's always being acted upon. Pip in Dickens's novel was rascally and ambitious, and his makeover into a London society "gentleman" was peopled with characters you couldn't get enough of. If the film's point is that the modern version of a society gentleman is a rebel artist, it's too satiric to resonate in the dank doldrums of this movie.
Paltrow's Estella may be the bad girl of the piece, but under the circumstances she's a real room brightener. Paltrow is well cast: There's a vibrant blankness in her liquid lankiness and fine-cut bones; she's so pretty she's Pop -- porcelain Pop. And Paltrow is a good enough actress to suggest the cruelty behind Estella's dazzle; she enjoys how her unreachability keeps Finn forever reaching out for her. There's an erotic charge to her taunts, and, in at least one sequence, the eroticism is played out. This is daring -- for one brief, shining moment it looks like Great Expectations is going to become a disturbing mixture of fable and carnal fantasia.
Cuaron is a special talent and, as botched as Great Expectations often is, it's the kind of failure that deserves an audience -- if only to experience Cuaron's way of seeing, which is at its best in the early parts of this film. He can draw you so far inside a child's eye that the screen shimmers with possibilities. Everything becomes animistic and radiant. Perhaps what drew Cuaron to Finn was his humility. This director must be a very humble man to be so totally in communion with a child's vision. See it for that communion.