Skip to main content

You can have it. Make the edits.

Little Women
(2019)

(SPOILERS) It could be argued, given Little Women’s evergreen popularity, not least as a go-to text for Hollywood adaptations, that Greta Gerwig isn’t exactly stretching herself or giving us a better idea of the kind of directorial career she envisages. Hers is a likeable, intelligent, well-rendered sophomore picture. As such, the awards plaudits are probably no more or less deserving than for your average prestige period piece. Which is to say that Little Women is handsomely mounted and consummately performed (at least, by some of the cast), but it doesn’t absolutely feel like this umpteenth version of Louise May Alcott’s novel demanded to be told, even with the Gerwig’s innovations of experimentation with time frame and metatextual use of its author.

Of course, the only legitimate Hollywood criteria for a retelling is whether or not it will make money, and on that score, Little Women qualifies hands down. And the worst charge one can usually level at the period literary adaptation is that it’s inoffensive: invariably impeccably cast and functionally directed while providing a comfort blanket of familiarity and escapism. The temptation, even or perhaps especially with creative types who are devotees of the original texts, is to indulge a mix up what they know, offer a different flavour or twist to that familiarity. Armand Iannucci’s colour-blind take on The Personal History of David Copperfield inevitably means that becomes the most high-profile aspect of the film. Gerwig’s choices aren’t ones you’d take away from the trailer, but they are, in their own way, as much of an authorial signature overlaid onto the original author’s signature.

I’ve seen some criticism of the juggled time frames conceit, but for the most part, I think it’s an interesting choice. The worst I could say of it is that there are times, mostly during the first half of the film, when it results in an uncertainty of trajectory, not quite aimlessness but lacking clarity in what it’s supposed to achieve. That’s largely resolved as the picture progresses, and there are certain sequences – the recovery of Beth (Eliza Scanlen) from scarlet fever and the accompanying relief of Jo (Saoirse Ronan) juxtaposed with her death and Jo’s grief – where it feels positively inspired, and more than justifies the risk.

I was more convinced outright where it came to foregrounding of the autobiographical qualities of the book, by which Jo is a stand-in for Alcott and there are significant doubts voiced about the potential of her chick lit endeavour, until publisher Dashwood (Tracy Letts) receives input from his daughters (which is loosely the case, although he was the one to persuade her to write for girls in the first place). This is followed by Jo haggling with Dashwood over her royalties and sequel rights. My favourite aspect here was the nod to the novel’s unashamed commercial instincts, whereby Dashwood insists that Jo must marry at the end or it stands no chance of capturing the imaginations of its prospective readership.

The picture is, perhaps surprisingly, most variable when it comes to casting, which means a knock-on for the strengths and weaknesses of certain plotlines. On the considerable plus side, Gerwig hits the jackpot reteaming with Ronan for her lead, far more vital and compelling than Winona Ryder in Gillian Armstrong’s 1994 version. She carries you passionately through Jo’s hopes and frustrations for freedom of expression and career, rejecting the traditional and expected support of a husband, both financially and for fulfilment. Just now, it feels as if there are no limits to Ronan’s range, and that an Oscar is only a matter of time.

Florence Pugh – who I’ll readily admit to having been cool on after I saw perhaps too many performative similarities across a couple of her roles – is similarly compelling as would-be professional artist Amy, besotted with neighbour Laurie (Timothee Chalamet), who is himself besotted with Jo, who has rejected his overtures. And both Pugh and Ronan have strong chemistry, often of a combative nature as their characters clash over attitudes and outlook. They also engage spiritedly with Meryl Streep’s old reliable, providing as she does Aunt March’s spinster with a knowing wit.

The aforementioned Letts is also very good, projecting underlying kindness into his officious editorial veneer. Scanlen makes a sympathetic Beth, even if the part is, by its nature, on the thin side. Chris Cooper (the moment where he sits on the stairs to listen to Beth playing is lovely), Bob Odenkirk and Louis Garrel also provide strong, likeable showings. Of course, next to everyone in this is likeable, or supposed to be likeable, which leads me to…

I’ve expressed reservations about Chalamet before when it comes to playing sympathetic parts, and that’s doubly confirmed here. Laurie is surely supposed to be likeable and charming enough that both Jo and Amy are enamoured of him, but Chalamet brings his usual slightly stiff, suspect quality to the role. There’s no ease or relaxed confidence to his privileged wastrel, which means the scene where he is allowed to join the sisters’ acting club is absolutely excruciating (just how is it that they’re finding him so amusing, other than his being a boy?) That Christian Bale was more charming and affable is saying something.

I was similarly less than convinced by Laura Dern, who as of writing seems to be a shoe-in for Best Supporting Actress Oscar for Marriage Story. She seems to be struggling to find any warmth in Marmee, and as a consequence, it’s difficult to believe in her children’s or husband’s devotion to her. Emma Watson is utterly flat as Meg, which means that, while John Brooke does his best as her husband, the entire plot strand – one that is particularly pointed with regard to hopes, dreams and expectations and their contrasting realities – rather flounders.

If Gerwig had handled the material with less sureness, these not insignificant shortcomings could easily have torpedoed the picture, but she nevertheless manages to ensure Little Women feels fresh, aided and abetted by Yorick Le Saux’s (Only Lovers Left Alive) gorgeous cinematography and Alexandre Despat’s sensitive score. I was ready to find Little Women mired in the curse of the period-piece literary adaption – respectability – but it succeeds in overcoming such limitations. That doesn’t mean, however, that it feels like an Oscar winner… any more than any other respectable period-piece literary adaptation. Which is where I came in.


Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

She was addicted to Tums for a while.

Marriage Story (2019)
(SPOILERS) I don’t tend to fall heavily for Noah Baumbach fare. He’s undoubtedly a distinctive voice – even if his collaborations with Wes Anderson are the least of that director’s efforts – but his devotion to an exclusive, rarefied New York bubble becomes ever more off-putting with each new project. And ever more identifiable as being a lesser chronicler of the city’s privileged quirks than his now disinherited forbear Woody Allen, who at his peak mastered a balancing act between the insightful, hilarious and self-effacing. Marriage Story finds Baumbach going yet again where Woody went before, this time brushing up against the director’s Ingmar Bergman fixation.

You can’t climb a ladder, no. But you can skip like a goat into a bar.

Juno and the Paycock (1930)
(SPOILERS) Hitchcock’s second sound feature. Such was the lustre of this technological advance that a wordy play was picked. By Sean O’Casey, upon whom Hitchcock based the prophet of doom at the end of The Birds. Juno and the Paycock, set in 1922 during the Irish Civil War, begins as a broad comedy of domestic manners, but by the end has descended into full-blown Greek (or Catholic) tragedy. As such, it’s an uneven but still watchable affair, even if Hitch does nothing to disguise its stage origins.

I mean, I am just a dumb bunny, but, we are good at multiplying.

Zootropolis (2016)
(SPOILERS) The key to Zootropolis’ creative success isn’t so much the conceit of its much-vaunted allegory regarding prejudice and equality, or – conversely – the fun to be had riffing on animal stereotypes (simultaneously clever and obvious), or even the appealing central duo voiced by Ginnifier Goodwin (as first rabbit cop Judy Hopps) and Jason Bateman (fox hustler Nick Wilde). Rather, it’s coming armed with that rarity for an animation; a well-sustained plot that doesn’t devolve into overblown set pieces or rest on the easy laurels of musical numbers and montages.

Maybe the dingo ate your baby.

Seinfeld 2.9: The Stranded
The Premise
George and Elaine are stranded at a party in Long Island, with a disgruntled hostess.

You know what I think? I think he just wants to see one cook up close.

The Green Mile (1999)
(SPOILERS) There’s something very satisfying about the unhurried confidence of the storytelling in Frank Darabont’s two prison-set Stephen King adaptations (I’m less beholden to supermarket sweep The Mist); it’s sure, measured and precise, certain that the journey you’re being take on justifies the (indulgent) time spent, without the need for flashy visuals or ornate twists (the twists there are feel entirely germane – with a notable exception – as if they could only be that way). But. The Green Mile has rightly come under scrutiny for its reliance on – or to be more precise, building its foundation on – the “Magical Negro” trope, served with a mild sprinkling of idiot savant (so in respect of the latter, a Best Supporting Actor nomination was virtually guaranteed). One might argue that Stephen King’s magical realist narrative flourishes well-worn narrative ploys and characterisations at every stage – such that John Coffey’s initials are announcement enough of his…

We live in a twilight world.

Tenet (2020)
(SPOILERS) I’ve endured a fair few confusingly-executed action sequences in movies – more than enough, actually – but I don’t think I’ve previously had the odd experience of being on the edge of my seat during one while simultaneously failing to understand its objectives and how those objectives are being attempted. Which happened a few times during Tenet. If I stroll over to the Wiki page and read the plot synopsis, it is fairly explicable (fairly) but as a first dive into this Christopher Nolan film, I frequently found it, if not impenetrable, then most definitely opaque.

You must have hopes, wishes, dreams.

Brazil (1985)
(SPOILERS) Terry Gilliam didn’t consider Brazil the embodiment of a totalitarian nightmare it is often labelled as. His 1984½ (one of the film’s Fellini-riffing working titles) was “the Nineteen Eighty-Four for 1984”, in contrast to Michael Anderson’s Nineteen Eighty-Four from 1948. This despite Gilliam famously boasting never to have read the Orwell’s novel: “The thing that intrigues me about certain books is that you know them even though you’ve never read them. I guess the images are archetypal”. Or as Pauline Kael observed, Brazil is to Nineteen Eighty-Four as “if you’d just heard about it over the years and it had seeped into your visual imagination”. Gilliam’s suffocating system isn’t unflinchingly cruel and malevolently intolerant of individuality; it is, in his vision of a nightmare “future”, one of evils spawned by the mechanisms of an out-of-control behemoth: a self-perpetuating bureaucracy. And yet, that is not really, despite how indulgently and gleefully distr…

A herbal enema should fix you up.

Never Say Never Again (1983)
(SPOILERS) There are plenty of sub-par Bonds in the official (Eon) franchise, several of them even weaker than this opportunistic remake of Thunderball, but they do still feel like Bond movies. Never Say Never Again, despite – or possibly because he’s part of it – featuring the much-vaunted, title-referencing return of the Sean Connery to the lead role, only ever feels like a cheap imitation. And yet, reputedly, it cost more than the same year’s Rog outing Octopussy.

Just make love to that wall, pervert!

Seinfeld 2.10: The Statue
The Premise
Jerry employs a cleaner, the boyfriend of an author whose book Elaine is editing. He leaves the apartment spotless, but Jerry is convinced he has made off with a statue.

My name is Dr. King Schultz, this is my valet, Django, and these are our horses, Fritz, and Tony.

Django Unchained (2012)
(MINOR SPOILERS) Since the painful misstep of Grindhouse/Death Proof, Quentin Tarantino has regained the higher ground like never before. Pulp Fiction, his previous commercial and critical peak, has been at very least equalled by the back-to-back hits of Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. Having been underwhelmed by his post Pulp Fiction efforts (albeit, I admired his technical advances as a director in Kill Bill), I was pleasantly surprised by Inglourious Basterds. It was no work of genius (so not Pulp Fiction) by any means, but there was a gleeful irreverence in its treatment of history and even to the nominal heroic status of its titular protagonists. Tonally, it was a good fit for the director’s “cool” aesthetic. As a purveyor of postmodern pastiche, where the surface level is the subtext, in some ways he was operating at his zenith. Django Unchained is a retreat from that position, the director caught in the tug between his all-important aesthetic pr…