Little Women – Subtle Poetry

Something fresh that filmmaker Greta Gerwig brings to the Little Women story, in the new adaptation, is the elements of meta.  Her screenplay weaves in biographical details about Louisa May Alcott, the original author of the classic novel, creating a sense of reverence for the writer that establishes the real-world accomplishments of the source text.  It is a wonderful notion, that doubles the meaning of the work, in both a fictional and historic manner.  Aside from that, Gerwig presents a further meta about writing and directing, whereby the plays of Shakespeare are discussed in the film in terms of work that managed to be both poetic and popular.  Little Women 2019 is the perfect example of a repeatedly told story, that is newly remarkable because of talented authorship, and the reach to artistic achievement in a sellable mainstream affair.

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The undeniable brilliance of the original story is important, and it’s why the book keeps getting adapted, and why it keeps working.  Writer and director Greta Gerwig is faithful to the material, and never really messes with the intricacies of the plots, just plays around with the camera, setting and character.  Saoirse Ronan stars as Jo March in an utterly gorgeous performance, splitting the timeline between childhood and adulthood, hued memories and bleak realities.  Her sisters are all given as much development as she is, in slightly less time: Florence Pugh as Amy, Emma Watson as Meg, and Eliza Scanlen as Beth.  Their mother, played by Laura Dern, is a piece of all of them, in her clothes and the shades of colour in her hair.  In a film full of moving scenes, it would easy to overlook the quieter moments where the sisters are bickering in their family home, talking over the top of each other rhythmically, all written exactly by Gerwig.  This is when you fall completely into the setting and are happy to stay there.  Across the road, in a much larger home, lives Theodore ‘Laurie’ Laurence, again beautifully performed by Timothee Chalamet, who lives with his austere grandfather, played by Chris Cooper.  In contrast to the warmth of the March house, the Laurence manor is far more masculine and impersonal, only brought to life when the girls visit.  One of the stunning extracts of the film is when Laurie is stood on a chair undergoing a teaching lesson from tutor John Brooke (James Norton), when he spots Amy outside the window, saying to John excitedly: “There’s a girl out there.”  Soon all the sisters are in the study, catching the boy’s infatuation, bringing a spark to the spacious mansion.

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It is in this scene when the little details of acting and directing prowess are ever-present.  Jo gallops into the room inspecting the vast collection of books, and Laurie tracks her with his eyes, in love with her of course, Chalamet has it all over his face.  It’s a look we have all given, and Chalamet’s recreation on screen is a constant, building this mesmerising chemistry he has with Ronan.  Their movements seem almost in sync, dancing together, rubbing each other’s hair, embracing tight and long, agonising for Laurie and comforting for Jo.  If you know the story, then you’ll know that at the heart of the romance is this pair, how perfect they seem for one another, yet it cannot work out.  Ronan and Chalamet’s time on screen together encapsulate this, and the inevitable confrontation they have is truly astonishing cinema.  Due to an excellent screenplay that loses all silliness and exaggerated chivalry, the crescendos confession from Laurie and subsequent rejection from Jo is neither melodramatic nor pretentious, instead feels contemporary and honest to life.  Thanks in part to the tactility, and closeness to their friendship, where it is an absolute joy to see Jo punch Laurie on the arm whenever he is being particularly stupid.  Away from the bonds between characters, the film has modern sensibilities because of the style of the players when they are viewed singularly, such as Jo’s hairstyle, or the way Laurie wears his American Civil War era clothes.  Even Saoirse Ronan’s running has a twenty-first-century beat to it, like the way Gerwig runs herself in Frances Ha.  All of that being said, it is in the editing where Gerwig really brings the story to the now, and the choice to have two narratives side by side throughout is an effective one, being bound only by the families it has the impression of separate readings.  It traverses as expected from a New York trained indie filmmaker, whilst keeping tight with the time period, and it is difficult to not be seduced by its charm.

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There is genuine and sincere poetry in this film.  It has ideas on female recognition, love, contentment, childhood, and writing that are fledged out to a base level.  The film is funny and heart-warming, treats its sadder moments with respect and allows each character to act out in meaningful ways.  And it is all packed into a story that is important to so many and will be seen by huge audiences across cinemas all over the world.  Greta Gerwig has achieved poetry in the mainstream, with subtleties and intelligent casting, matched with a cinematographer (Yorick le Saux) who gives energy to each shot and lighting choice – every time it cut to a new location, I was excited to see what my eyes saw next.  I think we are lucky to have a film like this, one with such magic.  I do not believe the film is radical, nor groundbreaking and I’m not about to try and understand the complexities of a feminist message.  Little Women is ultimately about a level of compromise, and you do not have to squint hard to see Gerwig herself sacrificing a perhaps more impactful protest by succumbing to the pressures of producing a film that can be easily adored.  When you have a film this special, that imagines impossibly strong emotive reactions, at least from myself, you get a free pass into greatness, placed into a column titled: what makes life worth living.

 

 

 

 

Midsommar – Film Review

American director Ari Aster has followed up quickly to his debut feature Hereditary, a cultural and monetary success, making a profit of almost eight times its budget.  The film performed particularly well in the UK, generating around seven million, after being marketed as the scariest movie since The Exorcist (1973).  Of course, like the seventies classic, Hereditary’s scares were not its greatest attribute, yet the film was cruel, despairing and different to most mainstream horrors.  The film played to big, multiplex audiences and was somehow successful with them, so Aster got bankrolled to try it again.  With Midsommar, the world and Boris Johnson riddled Britain may not connect as tightly.

The film stars Florence Pugh as Dani, who begins the film worrying about her troubled sister whilst worrying about her boyfriend dumping her.  That boyfriend is Christian (Jack Reynor), a grad student struggling to find a thesis subject.  He is planning a trip with his friends to Sweden, to visit fellow student Pelle’s (Vilhelm Blomgren) isolate home community during a summer festival that only happens every ninety years, but Christian has not told Dani about the trip.  Due to a traumatic event early on in the film, Christian is forced to bring Dani along and they head to Halsingland, Sweden.  The trip is part academic, with one of Christian’s friends Josh (William Jackson Harper) doing his own Ph.D. on the commune.  It is soon apparent the strange activities of the community, and Dani begins to relive her trauma, whilst the others study the celebration.

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The film opens bleakly, and before the trip to Europe, which is an interesting choice and it says something about what Aster was striving for.  It is common for a genre filmmaker to throw you right into the action, disregard what comes before, and after, to show the thrills of the main event without any baggage.  Aster decides to structure his films slightly different, by having relationship drama first, then a long moody build-up, then the main event, then catastrophic end.  His formula can be criticised because it feels almost like he has a deep set up, just to have an exclamation point resolution: sorrow, intrigue, flowers, MIDSOMMAR!   Aster has described Midsommar as a break – up movie, rather than a cult chiller, and perhaps the director could be running away from his own genre with this statement.  Aster does not have to be so pretentious in his estimations of his own work, sure there’s an impending break – up in there, but that’s not the film.  The film really isn’t anything, it’s a lot of good ideas expertly presented, that paints an intriguing surface.

It would be unfair to say that there is nothing beneath that surface, and in the time the film will be judged on its ideas of death and community, instead of break-ups and trauma.  The relationship between Dani and Christian is clearly flawed, and they are obviously a poor fit together, with the film being unambiguous in this.  Christian is impossibly absent of any actual care for Dani and his abrasiveness has made him a Twitter meme, which is surely not what Aster was aiming for if he wanted the pulling the apart of the two characters to be taken seriously.  That is the strength of the film, and why it is ultimately worthy amongst summer 2019’s abysmal cinema.  Midsommar throws away any attachments to message or plot about two-thirds of the way through, and honestly this was a breath of fresh air.  If you take the film as a total visual experience, which is a culmination of a collection of emotion transgressed through humour, stunning imagery, and shocking sights, you will be satisfied.  There is a sense of the levity to Midsommar and it has funny shots, and lines.  It would be wrong to label this film as a comedy, and it’s there to let the audience know that Aster’s aware it’s a bit bonkers too.  At least I hope he does.  The scariest part of the movie is when Christian effectively steals Josh’s thesis subject, and it’s a shame Aster didn’t explore it more.  And what do the cult believe?  That humans and nature are one presumably, life is a cycle of reliving through the environment around you.  Some subtly finally occurs in the climax, bizarrely and contradictory to what is happening in the frame, where questions are being asked on how far Dani has been enchanted by the cult, and how much control she has of her actions.  One thing that is picked at by Aster is the idea that Dani’s situation, and to a lesser extent Christian’s, is dictated by events out of their control that is epitomised by the peculiar routines and traditions of the community.

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The performances in Midsommar line up with the direction.  Pugh is given the most to do, and apart from some over-zealous screaming she is convincing and brings strong ecstatic energy during a dancing competition scene, which is the highlight of the film.  She manages to be uplifting and curious, amongst the community that is instantly seen to be dangerous, remained worried whilst also being courteous, where the American boys are mocking.  Reynor is playing a one-sided character and only gets to do something different when his back is against the wall towards the end of the film.  Will Poulter is the non-academic snide member of the group, there for the comedy and to push Christian further into egotism.  The rest of the characters are fairly shallow, which ultimately isn’t a total flaw because of Asters show don’t tell eyes.  It’s hard to understand whether he is actually ‘telling’ something or only ‘showing’, however the film has a good balance between giving the actors space to breath and letting them get lost in the impressive cinematography.  And Aster uses the Swedish characters as pawns to hold the shot composition together, as much as they are there to frighten.

Midsommar has already made a million in the UK, showing some steam, but it may still prove to be a flop.  The film will struggle to utilise the word of mouth power that Hereditary got, considering the film has zero attempts to pander to a wide audience.  Aster has this weird higher standard to which critics hold him to, possibly due to his quick success or the way his films are marketed as cultural events, and the remarkability of his movie’s technical achievements are forgotten.  Without him, there would be no salvage in the mainstream from franchise, conglomerate studio shite, and so he deserves a little appreciation.

 

Is it worth the price of a cinema ticket?

Yes.  Two and a half hours flew by, and it’s enjoyable whether you have the stomach for it or not.