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Australian director Gillian Armstrong has made a handsome and decorous screen version of Peter Carey’s novel, starring Ralph Fiennes, a sterling British name big enough to accommodate an idiosyncratic, effortful characterization, and relative newcomer Cate Blanchett, an Australian actress on the rise.

It had better be handsome and decorous, the “name” must strive mightily to make this presentation of personality different from his last frock-coated assignment, and the female in question must certainly fit into Armstrong’s patented lineups of red-nostrilled, high-foreheaded period tomboys. This is the world of the art movie as salve, where everything is just so but nothing is recognizable to the anxious middle-class patrons whose terms of gentility are increasingly muddled and irrelevant.

Merchant/Ivory is mostly responsible for this drift; that production outfit is the Spielberg, as it were, of the genteel art film. It destroyed the genre it favors by creating that genre’s most venal myths and presenting them with creamy palatability. Serious directors wading through M/I’s formidable trail of box-office receipts find that the new formula is not just workable but profitable: Ensure that the story is Western, preferably European, in setting; make the characters’ class upper-middle or higher, or—if going for “quirky” in the blurbs—Paul Fussell’s invaluable “Class X”; shoot everything to sparkle moistly like precious diamonds and plangent tears. All of these strictures should sift out to a time, place, and people of maximum photogenic quality, costumes-, landscape-, and accessories-wise.

Movies in contemporary settings that are said to have universal application are actually he-she stories dressed up or down, every facet of this prism flashed for instructive or cathartic modern use. Period films tell similar relationship stories, but the margin between the applicability of the 19th- or (better yet) 18th-century characters’ situations to those of the modern moviegoer is wide enough that these films exist merely for the presentation of tabletop and wardrobe-mistress’s pretties, comfortably quaint social mores, and an ordered and sumptuous world in which everyone knew his place and could become remarkable (the stuff of fiction) for his attitude toward it: keeping to it, rejecting it, sacrificing it. Tragedy provides the most satisfying conclusion to all these gleaming treats; moviegoers are indulged in and subsequently absolved of their envy—”Ah, but he dies.”

The namebearers in Oscar and Lucinda are a Class X couple, but the film is in every way a good-looking, well-made, and pointless exercise in yearning. Narrated here and there by Oscar’s eventual grandson (the voice of Geoffrey Rush, who possibly puts in more time here than in his award-winning Shine performance), it tells how the bookish and socially inept theological student Oscar (Fiennes) meets the proto-feminist heiress Lucinda (Blanchett) over their mutual addiction to gambling, how Oscar makes one last bet to prove his love to Lucinda, and how fate is ultimately stronger than luck.

The grandson’s provenance is unclear until the very end—Lucinda is attached to the Rev. Dennis Hassett (Ciaran Hines), who helped her buy, with an inheritance she did not want, a vigorous glassworks. Oscar is a diffident and solitary man, an unrepentant compulsive gambler whose forays into the seamier byways of betting necessarily contrast with his thin, ascetic face and tattered student’s garb—his bargain with God allows him to wager at will but dispense with all winnings. After they meet on shipboard, they fall in chaste love, and Lucinda’s continued warmth toward Hassett (who has since moved away and married) so nettles the undeclarative Oscar that he makes her a fatal bet: If her factory builds a small but spectacular glass church, he will see it shipped safely to a remote and dangerous area of the outback. The impossible plan succeeds through love but is undone by chance.

Carey’s Booker Prize-winning novel is a worthy project, and it makes a lush movie, although Blanchett is an amalgam of every Armstrong heroine (except the Little Women lineup, whose hearty American cheer somehow loosened Armstrong’s corset strings), and Fiennes tries manfully to act the ostentatiously retiring part, unconvincingly, in the end—so full is he of mannered hesitations and hesitant mannerisms. But the overall effect is one of generic art-house sludge. Overpolished and inconvenient, lovely and unmoving to look at, accommodating of the modern viewer’s genteel, softly snobbish yearnings, these movies are another futile compromise the middle class makes with its aspirations: They’re the bed-and-breakfasts of art.

Great Expectations screenwriter Mitch Glazer has been imprudently giving interviews detailing the facile substitutions by which he updated the Dickens story for the screen—Magwitch becomes Lustig, Havisham goes to Dinsmoor (and Miss to Ms.), South London to the Florida gulf.

Alfonso Cuarón (along with cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki) has made his own substitutions, and the result is a gorgeous, overripe romance told in swooningly unreal visuals—everything from the sets to the characters is heartbreakingly lovely, morals give way to emotions, and the quest for gentility becomes the more timeless search for love. Cuarón’s vision doesn’t exactly mirror Dickens’, nor could it; it would take a director less consumed with visual splendor and more intellectually complex to parse the modern equivalent of a young man’s soul-destroying moral education undone by the manipulations of vengeful women.

But Glazer’s glibness countermands Cuarón’s high style, and finally what’s bad about the movie outweighs what’s good. While fiddling with details seemingly at random may have Americanized the story (although “Dinsmoor” is no less musty or British-sounding than “Havisham”), its stripped-down structure can’t support Glazer’s self-conscious “literariness.” The dialogue is of the rhythmic sort that reads well but sounds stiff and untenable spoken, the unpleasant little epiphanies for the hero clicking down the track on schedule and clearly reported to him, always a bit late for the canny audience.

The hero is no longer Pip but Finn (Ethan Hawke), an American literary precedent far too weighted for its employment to make any sense here. He’s the same orphan, taken in as a toy and a target by the mad, jilted Ms. Dinsmoor (Anne Bancroft), who has every recording ever made of “Besame Mucho” and the biggest cat in Florida. Her exquisite niece Estella (Gwyneth Paltrow), the distant star who retains her name from the original text, is reared for the sole purpose of destroying men’s faith in women the way Ms. Dinsmoor’s faith in men was destroyed on what was to have been her wedding day.

It might have been nice for non-Dickens fans to figure this appalling fact out for themselves and watch in horror as every truth Finn has held about his life comes undone. But as Finn and Estella spin together and apart once in New York, where she is engaged to a neurotic richie (Hank Azaria) and he is a hot young artist being kept by some mysterious benefactor, their fate is signalled far in advance, and Finn is too dense to see the signs, going slack-jawed at the moment of revelation.

Other errors cripple the plot: Our flattened culture confuses class perceptions and no longer accommodates the divisions Glazer leaves in, as when Finn’s fisherman Uncle Joe shows up at his art opening, flushed with excitement and wearing a ruffled tuxedo shirt. The art snobs respond immediately to his coarseness, and he is, of course, humiliated, but a modern Finn would not have to distance himself from his relatives, claiming them dead or making up glamour stories. And why would the teenage Finn have a black tie and cummerbund but no jacket?

With no narrative surprises to hope for, the audience can only watch the pageant unspool. Cuaron’s Gulf Coast is an organic Eden of drip and rot and spoiled grandeur; New York is a fairyland, all lights and swank shop windows. Paltrow makes a suitably cool and enigmatic Estella, although it’s hard not to see the character as a tiresome tease. But Hawke is ardent enough to argue in her favor; the romantic yearnings are charged and charming, their strange interludes poignant. There are a couple of nice observations, as when Finn, not at all the arrogant young artist despite being at ground zero of the art world, notes that his talent is “completely undeserved.” The same pain and hopefulness are manifest at the end, when he says, with crippling naiveté, “I had never asked for anything.” Great Expectations is beautiful and romantic, but it will only touch your heart if you leave your brain at home.CP