We first see eight-year-old Finnegan Bell (Jeremy James Kissner) -- the character derived from Dickens's Pip -- ankle deep in Gulf water, drawing fish in his sketch pad. Visually, the sequence has the sharp pull of something fiercely recollected, and when Finn's voice, much older now, comes on the soundtrack, we're fully prepared for his words: "I'm not going to tell the story the way it happened. I'm going to tell it the way I remember it."
This is a tip-off that, in this movie, anything goes. The visual and thematic leaps don't follow a normal storytelling logic; they certainly don't parallel Dickens's heavily layered and interlocked narratives. And yet Cuaron and Glazer are gambling that there is enough mortar in Dickens's voluminous material to connect their free-flung fancies.
The results don't hang together -- not as a variation on Dickens and not as a poetic fable, either. Finn's words at the beginning may be a tip-off to us that anything goes, but, in a way, they also function as a disclaimer: As long as Finn remembers the story in this way, we can't fault the film's waywardness and filigree.
But of course we can; even poetic fables have to have some ballast. And, beautiful as it is around the edges, Great Expectations is wispy at the core: It fails to provide us with a hero with a rich inner life to match the visual richness of the film's outer life. As little Finn grows into the young adult artist played by Ethan Hawke, we get less magic when we should be getting more. As a character, Hawke's bewildered Finn isn't even a satisfying poetic conceit. He's more like an addled stand-in.
Since Finn is in every scene of Great Expectations, this problem is enough to seriously hobble the movie. But Cuaron is such an amazing imagist that we can still enjoy the flourishes he provides. He is the artist that Finn is supposed to be, and he uses the screen as his freeform canvas. The world of this movie is seen through Finn's eyes, but, of course, the eyes really belong to Cuaron. And when he's flying high, you don't really care whether it makes sense that the insubstantial Finn is imagining such ravishing reveries. It's enough that Cuaron is.
The early sequences in Great Expectations capture some of the same heightened lyricism as Cuaron's A Little Princess, one of the most enraptured children's fables ever filmed. Little Finn is jolted in the water by a shackled runaway convict (Robert De Niro) who seems to rise right up out of the shallows at him. It's a worthy counterpart to the famous moment in David Lean's classic 1946 adaptation when little Pip is terrorized in the cemetery. De Niro's convict is a boy's-book nightmare: Mossy and pirate-like, yet fascinating for all that. It makes sense that, later on that night, Finn feeds him and helps him escape. What adventurous boy wouldn't want to set free such a scary scamp?
Finn lives in a working-class fishing village with his errant sister Maggie (Kim Dickens) and goodhearted "uncle" Joe (Chris Cooper). Like De Niro's convict, Joe is an idealized figure -- his goodness is total. When, on an errand, he takes the boy to a dilapidated Venetian Gothic mansion on Sarasota Bay, Finn enters into a storybook realm that is the movie's conceptual high point. Inside lives the batty Ms. Dinsmoor (Anne Bancroft) -- the counterpart to Dickens's Miss Havisham -- the richest woman in Florida and a recluse for 20 years since she was jilted at the altar.
Ms. Dinsmoor's niece Estella (played as an 11-year-old girl by Raquel Beaudene) becomes Finn's playmate -- sort of. Her aunt has raised her to be a princessy snoot who will grow up to break men's hearts, and Finn, awed and afraid of her, is her first victim. She whirls him around the decaying manse, with its gold-leaf ceiling and dead flowers heaped all about, and treats him to a soul kiss at the courtyard water fountain. That kiss seals Finn's fate: He is forever enthralled.
Both little Finn and Estella have a delicate, rapturous beauty; they too might have been fashioned from gold leaf. As long as Cuarón stays with these two, Great Expectations is marvelous. But Anne Bancroft gets away from him. It's an intriguing idea to reconstitute Miss Havisham as an aging showgirl who dresses 40 years younger than she looks -- Palm Beach is full of such women. But Bancroft -- who once upon a time, in movies such as The Miracle Worker and The Pumpkin Eater was a great actress -- has become such a ham bone that you can't even believe in her Ms. Dinsmoor as a roaring caricature. She's beyond camp, and not in an enjoyable way, either. You begin to dread Bancroft's appearances in this movie because her indulgences keep jarring the fragile poetic mood. She's a one-woman movie-wrecker.