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When veteran producer Art Linson and Mexican director Alfonso Cuarón took on Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations for Twentieth Century Fox, they discovered a 19th-century classic with 20th-century appeal. Helen Beck reports.

Sexy, clever, wholly original and wryly observed, director Alfonso Cuarón's adaptation of Great Expectations is one of those films a critic just can't help falling in love with. (Ed: Not all critics . . .) Sporting a young cast with the creative verve to take on a literary classic, it is at once engrossing and utterly audacious. It's also a movie that nearly didn't make it to the screen at all.

"At first I thought it would be too difficult to translate to modern times," says producer Art Linson, a Hollywood veteran of 20 years, whose credits range from Car Wash and The Untouchables to Fast Times at Ridgemont High. "It was only after watching David Lean's version and re-reading Dickens that I realised the story had some wonderful and timeless themes about coincidence, wanting things you can't have, and trying to obtain respect. All these elements provided the potential to turn a classic into a thoroughly modern tale."

But rather than tackle familiar territory or run up against comparisons with Lean, Cuarón & Co take a different tack with their new film. Like Baz Luhrmann's Romeo + Juliet and Amy Heckerling's Clueless (which, in case you didn’t notice, was adapted from Jane Austen's Emma), Great Expectations takes a classic love story and turns it into a contemporary urban romance, creating an ultramodern, hyper-stylised visual perspective for its tale of unattainable love.

"I knew that Alfonso could make it look like a 'big' movie, but that the scale would come from his heart" Art Linson

Set in New York's downtown art scene and in the backwaters of southern Florida, Great Expectations follows the progress of Finn Bell (Ethan Hawke), an aspiring artist whose world is dramatically changed by three disparate strangers - the dangerous convict Lustig (Robert De Niro), the beautiful Estella (Gwyneth Paltrow) and the eccentric Nora Dinsmoor (Anne Bancroft) - each of whom unexpectedly and relentlessly invades his life. Though Finn seems to have it all, the one ingredient missing is, notably, himself.

"At first I couldn't figure out how to update the story", says writer Mitch Glazer (who adopted the novelist’s A Christmas Carol into Scrooged). "It seemed so specific to Dickens' time, which was marked by class conflict. But the more I thought about it, the more I realised it didn't have to be about class at all."

"I realised I had an opportunity to do something completely original with this script. I was struck by its many textures and character arcs, and realised that our film would be more an elaboration than a pure adaptation" Alfonso Cuarón

Drawing on his own upbringing in Florida and New York, Glazer instead recast the story as an urban adventure. "Dickens, Magwitch and Miss Havisham seemed too spectacular, almost untouchable to my ear," says Glazer, who gave the characters a 20th-century facelift instead. Pip becomes Finn; Miss Havisham becomes Ms Dinsmoor, a Palm Beach eccentric, while Magwitch is recast as De Niro's Lustig, a prisoner on the run.

"The crystallising idea, though, was making the Pip character Finn, an artist who goes to New York to have his one-man art show and win Estella's love through fame and celebrity," notes Glazer. "I thought that modern equivalent would, in the end, give us more creative freedom to explore all the characters."

With script in hand, Linson eventually signed Cuarón (A Little Princess) to the project. "I knew that Alfonso could make it look like a 'big' movie," says Linson, "but that the scale would come from his heart."

The acclaimed Mexican director quickly rose to the challenge. "I realised I had an opportunity to do something completely original with this script," says Cuarón. "I was struck by its many textures and character arcs, and realised that our film would be more an elaboration than a pure adaptation… At that point I couldn't say no."

"At the core of this tale is the idea that we have very little control over our lives and I could relate to that" Ethan Hawke

Neither could cast members Ethan Hawke, Gwyneth Paltrow, Robert De Niro and Anne Bancroft. "At the core of this tale is the idea that we have very little control over our lives and I could relate to that," says Hawke, the rising young heartthrob from Reality Bites. "For example, I started acting when I was 13, but very little of it was my own doing. There are people who have been incredibly kind to me and have changed my life, just as the characters in the film changed Finn's life."

"I simply wanted to work with Ethan," says Paltrow, who plays his love interest, Estella. "When you're really good friends with someone, you feel relaxed and open around them: it really helps you open up to the work." For De Niro, the personal connection also proved paramount. "I trust Art completely," says the actor who of his fifth collaboration with Linson.

"Ca d'Zan had a magical, larger than life quality because it was built by a circus family," he says. But production designer Tony Burrough (Richard III), still had to work some magic of his own. The challenge was to transform Ca d'Zan and its perfectly managed gardens into Ms Dinsmoor's dilapidated residence, Paradiso Perduto (Paradise Lost) - a menagerie of rotting remnants from a wedding party which never happened some 20 years earlier (launching the character on her descent into madness).

"In the end this is a story about destiny," Alfonso Cuarón

After five weeks filming in Florida (Finn's fishing village was shot on nearby Cortez Island), the production moved north to New York, which was, notes Cuarón who lives there, "the perfect contrast to Florida. It's the perfect picture of capitalism and, more importantly, it is the capital of perceptions…"

For Cuarón, Great Expectations’ unique look, its hip young cast and vividly drawn characters all helped realise the film's timeless themes while creating a wholly modern original.

"In the end this is a story about destiny," he concludes. "It can take place any time, anywhere. It's about how we think we're in control of our own lives. But, in truth, all these things we do in order to achieve our great expectations only drive us away from our true nature."

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