LITTLE WOMEN (2019)

December 23, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. More than 150 years have passed since Louisa May Alcott’s novel was published (volume 1 was published in 1868, volume 2 in 1869). By my count, there have been seven previous movie adaptations, dating back to the silent film era and through the more familiar George Cukor-Katharine Hepburn (1933), Mervyn Leroy-June Allyson (1949), and Gillian Armstrong-Wynona Ryder (1994) versions. One might think that sufficient, yet, after viewing this latest, you’ll likely join me in believing that director Greta Gerwig and Louisa May Alcott (and by natural extension Jo March) are kindred spirits … timeless storytellers of the moment.

Oscar nominated (writing and directing) for her standout LADY BIRD (2017), Ms. Gerwig remains true to the beloved source material while adding her own contemporary touch. She begins with the adult March sisters and then flashing back 7 years to the stage of living together and battling through the difficult and awkward transitional phase. The four sisters Jo (Saoirse Ronan), Meg (Emma Watson), Amy (Florence Pugh), and Beth (Eliza Scanlen) are exceptionally well cast, and we immediately recognize the familiar personality traits of each. Jo is the serious, determined writer who has an understanding of financial necessities. Meg is the warm facilitator beloved by all. Amy has ambitions (or is it dreams?) of being a great artist and living an exceptional life. Beth, the youngest, radiates a sweet nature and love for the piano.

Much of the story is told through the eyes of Jo. Her independent spirit and frustration with how the world is, boils over at times. She states her disappointment at being born a girl, and is described as having “a nature too noble to curb.” While viewing, one must keep in mind that this was the Civil War era (the girls’ father is a military Chaplain), and women had achieved very few rights in society. The contrast is never more evident than when comparing Marmee (Laura Dern), presented here as a near flesh-and-blood saint, with Aunt March (Meryl Streep), one quite at ease in thumbing her nose at societal norms for one reason … she is rich.

Fans of the novel will be pleased that Timothee Chalamet plays “Laurie Laurence”, who struggles every bit as much as the sisters in finding his way towards adulthood. His scenes with Jo are exceptional. Chris Cooper, not seen nearly enough in movies these days, perfectly captures the broken spirit of Mr. Laurence, a man never quite able to escape his own personal loss. Other key cast members include James Norton as tutor/teacher John Brooke, Louis Garrel as Friedrich (here a Frenchman), and Tracy Letts dropping some deadpan comedy as Jo’s publisher Mr Dashwood.

Ms. Gerwig (perhaps with a future as one of the greatest filmmakers) displays storytelling and cinematic craftsmanship at the highest level. She bounces between timelines (over at least 7 years) and different sisters’ stories, showing how each is so different … yet all interconnected. These spirited sisters, raised in the same modest home, have their own independent thoughts and ideas of how they want to live their lives. This delivers multiple comings-of-age and examines ‘a woman’s place’, whatever that means. In fact, the message is that a woman’s place is whatever she decides, and while her options are many (despite obstacles), her decisions are personal. None of the four sisters are played by American actors, and all four perform admirably. Pay particular attention to Florence Pugh (MIDSOMMAR) and her work as Amy. Also impressive is the Production Design by Jess Gonchor and the score by 2-time Oscar winner Alexandre Desplat. This one is all about the storytelling and characters, so take in the bunch known as the March sisters. As a side note, Greta Gerwig’s next movie is a live-action BARBIE movie, with Margot Robbie in the lead.

watch the trailer:


HAMPSTEAD (2019)

June 13, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. Were this not inspired by the true story of Harry Hallowes, finding something positive to say about the film might prove difficult. Hallowes was (sometimes) affectionately known as the “Hampstead Hermit”. The crux of his story is that he was awarded legal “squatter’s rights” for his many years living in a small shack on the vast land where the Athlone House (now foreign owned) sits. Director Joel Hopkins (THE LOVE PUNCH, 2014) works from a script by Robert Festinger (Oscar nominated for IN THE BEDROOM, 2001) to turn the story into a cutesy romantic comedy.

Diane Keaton stars as Emily Walters, widowed for more than a year by a man who left her in debt and with the added bonus of discovering he had been having an affair with a younger woman. Brendan Gleeson stars as Donald Horner, the gruff, well-read man from the shack. It’s an idyllic British community with quaint shops and leisure bicycle riders – the kind of place where locals mostly wave and smile while the generic background music plays. Emily, who lives in the luxury apartment she shared with her late husband, is trying to figure out how to dig out of the financial hole she’s in. The first idea should have been getting a job other than volunteering at a charity dress shop, but this is the type of movie where real world problems magically dissipate and we know things are going to be just fine.

The film is mostly tolerable when Brendan Gleeson is on screen, even when Ms. Keaton is annoying him with her usual quirks. Of course the two end up liking each other (it is a rom-com after all), and she helps him with his legal battle to keep his “home”, while he helps her find meaning in her days again. Ms. Keaton mostly wears her familiar turtlenecks and scarfs, and we even get an early beret visual punchline (later ruined).

The always fun Lesley Manville owns her role as Fiona, neighbor and quasi-rival to Emily. More of Ms. Manville would have helped. Other supporting roles are covered by James Norton, Adeel Akhtar, Simon Callow, Jason Watkins, and Hugh Skinner. Many familiar faces, each given little to do. Thanks to the real life Harry Hallowes, there is a message here about the difficulty in living life on one’s own terms – a near impossibility without somehow affecting on infringing on others. Otherwise, this is one that will only appeal to fans of Ms. Keaton and of movies that require little effort or thought from viewers.

watch the trailer:

 


BELLE (2013, UK)

July 12, 2014

belle Greetings again from the darkness. Always a bit partial to films based on a true story, I would have to label this as a fictionalized historical period piece, and a step above most costume dramas (though the costumes here are quite stunning). While it’s a very attractive movie to look at, I was a bit frustrated at the multi-directional approach that just skimmed many topics.

The movie could have focused on the relationship between cousins Dido Elizabeth Belle (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) and Lady Elizabeth Murray (Sarah Gadon). Or it could have zeroed in on the unusual complexities raised by the illegitimate mixed race Belle being raised in British Aristocracy. Still another option would have been digging into the historical impact of Zong massacre and the subsequent arguments, court trials and appeals. Instead, we get a splash of each … which leaves the viewer wanting more detail on all three.

The cast is very strong and features Tom Wilkinson as Lord Mansfield, Lord Chief Justice of the King’s Court … he raises Belle at the request of his nephew (her father). Lord Mansfield’s wife is played well by the always excellent Emily Watson.  Also featured are Miranda Richardson, Matthew Goode, Penelope Wilton (always entertaining), James Norton, Sam Reid, and Tom Felton – who creates yet another despicable character to go with his Draco from the “Harry Potter” series.

Maybe the best term for this is historical melodrama, as the courtroom decision comes across as anti-climatic, with more third act attention paid to Belle’s love interest (Mr. Reid). Very little is known of the actual Dido Elizabeth Belle, but it seems clear that her role in the Zong trial was dramatically enhanced for the purposes of the film. In fact, more drama may have played out for the film’s writing credit between the director Amma Asante and the WGA. Though the director lost the writing credit, she can be proud enough of the final product.  The two cousins are featured in the famous 1779 painting (see below) that inspired the story.

1779 painting