Charles Dickens's timeless novel, Great Expectations, has never had a more elegant or sensuous rendition than this one under the masterful direction of Alfonso Cuarón and screenwriter, Mitch Glazer.
Much like music, great novels have a tendency to touch lives by transcending time, place, and society, but the penchant is due more so to the seemingly nebulous quality of the art. Great works of art consist of an intricate mélange of emotions and themes; just as one motif cannot be (complex) enough to encapsulate many ideas, these ageless works inherently refuse to be summed up in a single style. It is not enough to say that Great Expectations is about a young man whose pride separates him from his true sensibilities, friendship, and those that love him best, but it is a story that encompasses almost every facet of human nature. It offers the audience a beautiful story featuring impetuous characters that risk all with confidence, skill, and courage.
In this version the tale is still the same in that the central character has a mysterious benefactor whose largesse provides for him the chance to raise his status and ultimately win his childhood love and muse, Estella—an imperious and aloof beauty. Nevertheless, Dickens' hero, a 19th century English blacksmith's apprentise, is translated to an American artist given the opportunity to succeed in 1990's New York City. The setting of the film may have been transported a century and a continent away, but the spirit of the 1998 interpretation is utterly faithful to the novel.
Though it may seem so at first glance, Great Expectations is far from a simple rehash or Hollywood remake, but a thoughtful and ardent incarnation of the original. Instead of being named Pip, an allusive and a less Anglican "Finn" (Ethan Hawke) begins narration on the lush gulf coastlands of Florida. Living there with his fisherman surrogate father, Uncle Joe, and older sister, the young artist is a naïve but content child limited only by his means. During early boyhood, Finn encounters and aids an escaped convict, Lustig (Dickens' fearsome Magwitch), who is on the run from death row for a mob-related homicide. Then, through an unconventional method, he intermittently samples the life of the financially privileged and thus develops a lifelong infatuation with status and Estella (Gywneth Paltrow), the niece of the spooky dowager, Miss Dinsmoor. (And not only does Paltrow perfectly suit the role of Estella, but she delivers one of her best—and most befitting—performances, ever.) The main conflict between the larger world and humble origins is played out in Finn's rejection of his secret benefactor and unadorned, honest background; and only after years of torment and confusion does he finally reach the conclusion that success is empty if it is devoid of love. It is no irony that the protagonist is also an artist because the profoundly visual temperament of the film is key in making audiences experience every emotion through him and no one else.
Composer Patrick Doyle first collaborated with director Cuarón on the breathtaking film, A Little Princess. In Great Expectations, Doyle's deeply intuitive score adds a whole other dimension on top of an already sensory-rich mode of storytelling. Thanks to a brilliant cinematographer and set designer, the gorgeous expressionistic visuals are indelibly tied to the senses; the music does the same, but provides a slightly different conduit for experiencing emotion. The vivid textures of details are representative of Finn's artist sensitivities, but the music augments and connects experiences to his heart; it does not simply narrate the events, but describes them all in the way that Finn experiences them through a wide range of styles. From piano solos, to whistling, gentle guitar solo, orchestral work, opera, big band, jazz, pop, electronic, and even an ideal, classic Spanish ballad, each cue is an emotional gauge for Finn throughout the film.
At the start of the film, a young Finn is found drawing fish at the beach. There is magic in the world when one is still able to maintain the childlike naïveté, especially so through the eyes of an artist. This zeitgeist of childhood or wonder of the unknown is depicted by ethereal whistling (Carey Wilson), delicate chimes, light strings, and otherworldly Tori Amos vocals. And perhaps to deceive viewers, Doyle's initial theme for 'Paradiso Perduto' and Lustig's motif are similar enough so that one cannot use the aural cues as hints to discover the identity of the benefactor early on. (If the motif somehow fails to stick, Césaria Evora's performance of 'Besame Mucho' will long be associated with the strangeness and comedy of Miss Dinsmoor.) The track entitled 'Paradiso Perduto Revisited' features a different combination of themes for Finn's return to youth (in retrospect) and the odd, but memorable location that changed his life.
Some tracks are reminiscent of Doyle's previous works such as The Little Princess ('Finn', 'Paradiso Perduto'), Hamlet ('Benefactor'), and even Dead Again ('Crossing the Gulf'), but on the whole, the melody that is most poignant and prevalent is 'Estella's Theme'. Strangely enough, the melody's basic theme is so simple that it seemingly exists in a vacuum and comes alive only through interpretations by various instruments; much how still subjects look different in contexts where light is shined from various angles. The original version is performed on guitar (by John Williams) and the theme takes a number of forms throughout the film, e.g. 'By the Inch or By the Hour', a swanky piano lounge piece (played by Cyrus Chestnut), 'I Saw No Shadow of Another Parting', a foreshadowing aria (sung by Kiri Te Kanawa) that is practically a slice of vermiso opera, and various other synthesised/orchestrated cues.
One visual element that matches the aural journey is the omnipresent colour green; its many shades provide a different mood or ambiance for every occasion and often represent a mix of expressions—all which are open to interpretation. Although they permeate the entire film, the specific tones of the colour are often defined by their immediate environment. Highly akin to sensations, these shades can become almost smothering, vulgar, or soothing and placid depending on the character situation and atmosphere. It is in this respect that the colour green parallels Estella's character both thematically and visually. The ubiquity of her character (in music and on screen) pervades the film—much like the green, but the various shades of the colour and the variations of the character theme, in fact, represent Finn. No matter the scene change, location, time or place, his perception of her is always wrought by circumstances in which she appears to him. When her countenance is enigmatic, warm, or distant, it is a matter of subtle shading through music that expresses Finn's outlook on the situation. e.g. During a scene where Finn and Estella reminisce about the past ('A Walk in the Park'), Estella's gentle guitar theme is reprised and serves as an aural time capsule of sorts for Finn by encapsulating the moment in a bubble of the past; their easy camaraderie during the ephemeral stroll puts him in a past frame of mind when both were children and devoid of such tension or complex thoughts.
From posh to poverty, past to present, Estella's motif and its permutations serve as the timeless focus of Finn's obsession, but more often than not, they reflect most accurately the experiences of his most reckless changes due in part to her. The most dynamic and glorious track in the entire album would probably be 'Kissing in the Rain', which is a thoroughly telling, uplifting, intense, sensuous, and hands down passionate-as-hell piece that tracks a scene where Finn is in frantic pursuit of his elusive love. It begins with up-tempo strings and hurried harpsichord playing interchangeably melodic ostinatos—this is crucial in creating an aristocratic milieu for the art gallery scene in which Finn panics over Estella's unexpected departure. The bass strings swell and the upper strings and brass break out with Estella's sweeping theme as Finn rushes out of the gallery, into the pouring rain, and sprints down the street. The theme gradually diminuendos and rests briefly as Finn arrives at the door of a trendy, crowded restaurant; when he barges in—sopping wet in his tuxedo, he creates a mild flurry by walking to the back without a reservation. A low, pulsing pizzicato bass with gentle strings creep back in when he (looking beyond relieved) finally locates Estella and disrupts the meal with her fiancé and friends. Resonant celli and bass revisiting the cue's opening herald Finn's uncharacteristic bravado—prompted by lifelong desire and insecurities—when he approaches and asks her to dance in the middle of the restaurant. Amidst the seductive stringed pulse, Estella hesitantly stands to accept Finn's hand while the solo oboe follows suit and warily emerges to perform the melody along with the bass; it is unclear if Estella approves of his daring offer or is simply intrigued by such unexpected actions, but acceptance is all that's needed. As they move to dance, it becomes quite apparent that the only noise in the restaurant is quiet chatter, so the music suddenly shifts from non-diegetic to diegetic when it seems to be playing in Finn's head. After dancing for a few moments, Finn drops the pretense and tentatively pulls Estella outside into the rain all the while leaving the fiancé et al gaping. As they exit the doorway and step into the downpour, the music returns to its place and the classical rhythm slowly meshes with a gradually crescendoing, synthesised pop beat. Thoughts and sense are banished as Finn and Estella's emotions—two distinct essences—fuse to create something earth-shattering, alive, and thoroughly exhilarating. The music escalates and then blossoms into pure and exultant vocals of the theme (by Miriam Stockley) with a lustrous horn solo when they finally kiss in the rain. The pop beat prevails for a short time before the harmonised synths, orchestra, and voice intermingle and fade as one… That is three minutes and six seconds of ecstasy!
No matter the opinion of the film, this particular Patrick Doyle score truly deserves much more recognition than it has received over the years. The album consists of twenty two tracks and provides listeners with fifty minutes of music; the aesthetically pleasing liner notes contain stills from the film, a quote from Doyle, and an amusing anecdote from Alfonso Cuarón detailing one of Doyle's idiosyncrasies. Great Expectations is an entirely emotive album that encompasses so many emotional nuances and musical styles that a second or third hearing isn't remotely as satisfying as placing the CD put on an endless loop. So, if you are looking for all-consuming passion and romance in your music, this eclectic album is a must-have for your film score collection!