Gwyneth Paltrow, standing, brushes her knee against the hand of a seated Ethan Hawke. That's all – a knee and a hand – yet the moment is hotly, teasingly erotic. Of course, Mexican director Alfonso Cuarón is borrowing from Eric Rohmer's classic 1971 French film, Claire's Knee. And screenwriter Mitch Glazer is borrowing from Charles Dickens' classic 1861 novel. What matters is whether this updated Great Expectations has a mind of its own.
That it does, except for a few sappy lapses in the final stretch. Cuarón, working in the indelible shadow of David Lean's 1946 version, counters that black-and-white film with a burst of ravishing color. We meet Hawke's character, Finn Bell, as a 10-year-old boy (Jeremy James Kissner) who lives in a small Florida town with his sluttish sister, Maggie (Kim Dickens), and her fisherman boyfriend, Joe, played with warmth by Chris Cooper.
Two older characters change Finn's life. The first is Lustig (Robert De Niro), an escaped convict for whom Finn performs an act of kindness. The other is Nora Dinsmoor (Anne Bancroft), a rich eccentric who has let her mansion go to rot in the 30 years since her fiance abandoned her on their wedding day. Nora hatches a cruel plan to have Finn fall in love with her young niece, Estella (Ra-quel Beaudene), an icy beauty trained by Nora to break his heart.
Hawke and Paltrow play the grownup Finn and Estella, and – despite flamboyant turns from Bancroft and De Niro – their delicate performances manage to anchor the film. Paltrow has never looked sexier or more unattainable, which is precisely the point. Estella torments Finn with that knee in Florida, and later in New York, where Finn goes to become a painter and Estella agrees to pose for him in the nude. Never mind her fiance, Walter (Hank Azaria) – Finn is hooked. "You're drooling," Estella tells Finn as she surprises him by a fountain and licks at the same spurt of water. Paltrow and Hawke are dazzling – she for finding nuances in a one-note role, he for investing the lovesick Finn with a hard-won maturity as he comes to understand the twisted turns of his life. Cuarón imbues their journey with something rare in movies: a genuine romantic spirit.