GREAT EXPECTATIONS, Dir. Alfonso Cuarón, 1998

This film is overlooked a lot. It shouldn’t be.

GREAT EXPECTATIONS, released in 1998 and directed by Alfonso Cuarón, is a film that sometimes comes up in a drunken conversation among film school colleagues. Sure enough, a few weeks ago over libations, my friends and I agreed: “GREAT EXPECTATIONS is a fucking great movie. Nobody ever talks about that movie anymore!” And I was all like, “I’ll blog about it!”

So, I’ll blog about it.

GREAT EXPECTATIONS is a minor work by Cuarón by now. At its release, it generally carried a teeny-bopper-magnet reputation, with Paltrow and dreamboat Ethan Hawke driving the star vehicle.

The film is gorgeous, and notably well-designed.

Here’s a short list of the great things in GREAT EXPECTATIONS, subjects in no quality order:

1. The Green. It’s So Literally Green.

Did you need an example of color as motif? Did you need to get your geek on, with color-theory-as-seen-in-film? Then you need to watch GREAT EXPECTATIONS. Cuarón is/was known for using green a lot, as a personal visual preference – the color also has a strong presence in THE LITTLE PRINCESS (1995). It seems to be used simply as a style device.

Since the color green is omnipresent, it has no emotional or narrative significance within the film. The enforced color palette does lend a dream-like quality to the mise-en-scene.

(Sorry about forgetting to crop some of these…I made so many damn screencaps)

2. The Cast

A good ensemble cast is undeniably enjoyable to watch. The chemistry is off between some actors (Hawke needs to stop his dunce-act next to DeNiro, who phones in Older Lustig performance), but some of the acting is really memorable (Bancroft’s version of Bat-shit Crazy is one for the books). Gwyneth Paltrow is at her iciest, most beautiful, most aloof form in this film too. She’s so good, you thought Miramax made this film for her. They didn’t – it’s a Fox production.

Ethan Hawke with a mustache. You’re welcome.

(He was so damn cute, wasn’t he?)


I know you guys were waiting for that shot.

3. The Gross Negligence to Source Literature

Is this film anything like Great Expectations by Charles Dickens? No, not really. Sort of? The film is a Hollywood adaptation, one of the most blatant-loose-adaptation-skimmed-the-pages versions out there. There are problems with the flow of the narrative in spots, and the film contains a guilty cinematic device – the voice-over narration. Without Finn’s inner monologue, many sequences wouldn’t link up together smoothly. Cute trivia fact: David Mamet wrote the voice over narration, but only agreed to the job if it was promised that he wouldn’t be credited for that work. That bad, huh?

4.  The Francesco Clemente Artwork

Francesco Clemente is probably the best part of the film. In this version of GREAT EXPECTATIONS, the protagonist, Finn Bell, is an artist. He’s a natural painter with a specific style, and that style is Francesco Clemente, who was commissioned to do all of the art work in the film. The pieces are gorgeous. Each actor in the film sat privately for Clemente before production started. I can imagine how exciting and expensive this method is, but it’s very effective, and gives the film depth, both in constructing Finn’s character, and to the visual composition of the entire film.

5. The Locations: New York and Florida

People keep going to New York and people keep fleeing from Florida. Both locations are represented beautifully in this film.

The Ca d’Zan mansion in Saratoga, FL was the location for Mrs. Densmore’s mansion, pointedly named the Paradiso Perduto.

Bits of New York:

This toy airplane part is VERY CHUNGKING EXPRESS!

6. The Soundtrack

The soundtrack to this movie might as well be named THE authoritative 1998 compilation for popular rock / adult contemporary music. It has some heavy-hitter musicians whom you totally used to care about – Tori Amos, Pulp, Chris Cornell, Mono, Scott Weiland, The Verve Pipe, and um…Duncan Sheik. The best song was by Mono – “Life in Mono”, I say:

Tori Amos contributed not only a song, but her voice undulations for various parts of the score. That’s a pretty Tori Amos move, if I may say so.

The music dates the film, but I add it because it’s so (badly) nostalgic.

7. The Production Design

I can’t write about a movie without talking about production design.

The sets are just great, and they are wonderfully filmed. The design is by Tony  Burrough, set decoration by Susan Bode, and the cinematography is by Emmanuel Lubezki.

Mrs. Densmore’s Paradiso Perduto is a wealth of location + set decoration magic:

The “meager” Florida home Finn shares with his family is actually gorgeous too:

Finn’s artists’ loft is one of my favorite sets:

Finn’s hotel room has nice, small details:

Densmore’s New York Apartment:

8. The Costumes.

Judianna Makovsky’s costumes are great, green, and flattering:

Mrs. Densmore’s costumes are incredible!

9. The VFX is pretty damn good too:

And here’s my favorite odd shot in the film, Finn waking up:

Give this movie another try, if you haven’t already.


Wikipedia & Google. Wow, right?

Screen caps by me, the rest culled from Google Images.


  1. Filming fan

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  3. NK

    I love your review. I watched the film for the first time today and loved it so much that I felt like writing a blog entry myself. I came across your blog when I was searching for some photos of the film. You wrote what I wanted to say, almost to the point, but better and with more photos! Thanks!

  4. Badr

    finally found someone just as crazy about the film as i am …. Thank you for sharing.. this is single handedly the reason i got into film.

  5. Sheri Russo

    I have the “Don’t you want to paint me?” scene on speed dial. She’s so haughtily blasé about the whole thing and Finn’s reaction is priceless when the last garment hits the floor. Plus! Pulp’s ‘like a friend’ in the soundtrack for the scene. (I actually had my 24 year old boss want me to come to art class to pose nude. I am 46 years old and look like a pregnant hobbit! imagine my horror! Stand naked in a room full of strange 20 something year olds?!) But he was lamenting that all their models were scrawny girls and I had great curves for depth and shadows. Depth and shadows..I’ll have to remember that when I am trying to stuff myself into a pair a pantyhose. So anyway… that scene is my ‘if you weren’t such a chicken shit’ fantasy.)

    But there are just some scenes I can’t bare to watch…when his brother-in-law comes to the opening of his show…and after all the humiliation he still tells Finn he loves him. Bless his heart, he doesn’t even skip a beat when Finn shows up on his door step some time later.

    I love Gwyneth…but damn…she needed a sandwich back then. Thank god having children but a little meat on her. I want to have a neck like that…

  6. John

    If you thought the set decoration at Paradiso Perduto was magic, you might be interested to know that the scenes in Mrs. Densmore’s bedroom and the fountain that they drink out of were actually filmed in the Hempstead House ins Sands Point, NY. In fact, both sets were the exact same room. The removed the fountain and filled in the sunken room to create the bedroom set. If you look closely in your pictures above, you’ll realize that the large birdcage is sitting in the same spot as the fountain. It was amazing to watch them create the sets.

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  8. Gb

    I hope that the people who watch this movie can respect the fact that this is based on love over time .. such a hard concept to overcome .. I feel that this is the epitome of love lost and earned

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