Little Women (US, 2019)

Anything but little

Writer-director Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird (US, 2017) didn’t impress me but Little Women is a brilliant adaptation and is likely to be one of the best films I see this year. I’ve been trying to read Louisa M Alcott’s novel for a few months but find it a struggle as it is too treacly. Gerwig’s decision to put chop the narrative’s chronology pays off for me because it enables us to directly compare the young adults with their childish selves. Indeed, the degree to which Gerwig has sliced the narrative is extremely impressive as she usually offers parallels between the events happening to the younger and elder versions. The scenes where Jo (Saorise Ronan – brilliant as always) awakes in bed and goes downstairs to find out something significant is shot in exactly the same way (apart from the lighting) and this adds immense power to already emotive events. I have little interest in the Oscars, they are fetishised as being the ‘be all and end all’ of cinematic art, but the absence of Gerwig from the ‘best director’ list simply reinforces my belief that the awards are useless and even celebrate ineptitude (take a bow Tarantino). The only false note I noticed, in the direction, was an unnecessary close-up of Jo’s fidgeting fingers to convey her nervousness in the opening scene; Ronan doesn’t need such help.

I’m struggling to understand the original novel’s classic status as it is particularly anodyne. For example, the scene where Beth falls into the ice covered pond has zero drama in the novel, unlike the film. Presumably its classic status is due to the fact that it is a relatively rare example of a ‘coming of age’ narrative for females hence I don’t get it.

The editing (Nick Houy) is exceptionally good as it seamlessly (to the extent you’re not always clear what ‘time’ we are in) splices the flashbacks/forwards; though, again, much of the credit must go to Gerwig’s script.

I haven’t seen any of the earlier versions of the novel but there’s no doubt that this is one that is about 2020; I’m not sure it has much to say about post-Civil War America but that could be my ignorance. There is a fleeting reference to slavery but even here Laura Dern, playing the ‘little women’s’ mum (Marmee), the reference is contemporary: when saying, to a black woman, she was ashamed of her country, the reply is, “You should still be.” Marmee then agrees she still is; a clear reference to Trump’s America. The decision to use the same actors in both the young and older roles, unlike the other versions, partly explains the occasional confusion of ‘when’ we are but benefits as it gives us a greater continuity of character; it’s easier to understand how they change when we can see they are the same person. Despite their excellent, the actors can’t quite carry off being children but it’s a small loss.

Part of the modernity of the film comes from Gerwig grafting a metafiction narrative onto the original suggesting that Jo wrote Little Women. Gerwig said that the conversation that Jo has with the publisher about women in fiction, that they must get married by the end or the story has no appeal, was the same conversation that she had with producers when trying to get the film made (interview in Sight & Sound, February).

Little Women is an example of that the realitvely rare mid-budget Hollywood film, reported at $40m, and – despite the fact it would apparently only appeal to women! – has doubled that after three weekends in North America alone; it’s also taken over $10m in UK and Ireland. It was also designed as an ‘awards movie’, its middle brow characteristics, as well as its starry cast, are designed to get at least nominations which would boost the marketing. The best marketing is word-of-mouth and the relatively small weekly drops in the box office, and imdb’s 8.3, show this has been very positive for Little Women.

It is a heart-warming film but that’s despite the commonplace difficulties and tragedies in life the film portrays. Indeed, the meta-fictional ending brilliantly allows audiences to have the happy ending and understand its contrivance. There’s a marvellous ambiguity as to Jo’s marital status and she seems more enamoured with the first printing of her book than any man; apparently Jo is something of a Queer hero.

I’ve mentioned Ronan, but all the women are superb: Laura Dern, Florence Pugh, Eliza Scanlan and Emma Watson. The support is uniformly fabulous: Chris Cooper (behind bristles), Timothée Chalamet, James Norton and Meryl Streep. Credit foremost must go to Gerwig, who hopefully will become a major player in Hollywood as she clearly wants to tell important tales, particularly about women.

Wild Rose (UK, 2018)

Walking the line

Films are commercial beasts which are difficult to make profitably and it was hilarious when then PM David Cameron told a meeting of film producers that all they had to do was make films that were popular. The tension between art and commerce, in art generally, has been present at least since the rise of capitalism and film, being a particularly expensive art form, suffers more than most from compromises intended to ensure a return on investment. The fact that compromise is deemed necessary is not meant as a criticism: filmmaking is a job and as such has to pay. Wild Rose received funding from Channel 4 and the BFI, both institutions that have responsibilities for funding culture over commerce, but the producers of WIld Rose still cast names, Sophie Okonedo andJulie Walters, in supporting roles in an attempt to boost box office. It’s not that they, both excellent actors, don’t do the roles well but it’s not exactly supporting Scottish artists – Roy Stafford has useful comments on this in his review. Besides, Okonedo’s role is as a middle class Englishwomen (but she could have been Scottish) so there’s less contention about her casting. Lead, Jessie Buckley, is Irish but there can’t be many actors who sing country so convincingly and she gives a star-making performance, so no quibbles there.

Rose-Lynn (Buckley) is a would-be country singer saddled with two children who have been brought up by her mother (Walters) whilst she was in jail. ‘Saddled’ is the correct term as she resents the wee bairns as much as the electronic tag attached to her leg  that prevents her singing at the Glasgow Opry in the evenings. Working for Okonedo’s Susannah, as a day woman, gives Rose new hope and we’re in the treacherous territory of a middle-class saviour. Thankfully, Nicole Taylor’s script is too savvy for that and it also negotiates the commercial need for a feel-good ending well; after all this is Glasgow and not Hollywood.

There’s a subtlety given to Walters’ role of the long-suffering grandma who berates her daughter for not treating her children correctly but understands the frustrations involved. Rose is not an entirely sympathetic character either, as she regularly forgoes caring for her children for self-centred hedonism. Here the middle-class milieux of Susannah is important as it demonstrates the opportunities not open to working class people. Grandma had wanted to be a pharmacist but had to work from 15-years-old. Too often those in power patronise the working class for not taking opportunities in life apparently not understanding that the opportunities given to middle class children, often in public schools, are not available to everybody. Hence the victim is blamed for their plight.

There are many females in key producing roles in this film though it’s (ably) directed by a man, Tom Harper. A recent report showed how having women directing and/or writing leads to more prominence to female roles (not exactly rocket science that but it’s important to have the statistics). The current BBC series The Trial of Christine Keeler has women in all the main creative roles and it shows on the screen as the white middle class men are presented as the scumbags they were. In episode four, Keeler’s (Sophie Cookson) agent asks if she’s a femme fatale; while the noir character may not have been part of popular discourse in the early ’60s, it’s a knowing moment as Keeler glances at herself in the mirror as she shows incomprehension at the question. Scriptwriter Amanda Coe draws our attention to the trope that women are blamed for the fall of men when it’s always the men’s fault anyway.

Amanda (France, 2018)

Struggling with life

Spoiler alerts!

Director, and co-writer Mikhaël Hers, has made an interesting film that considers bereavement, PTSD and a twentysomething’s life challenges from an unusual perspective. David (Vincent Lacoste) is the young man who, happily, has few responsibilities: he makes his living by acting as a landlord’s go-between and by pruning trees. He does have to collect his 7-year-old niece, Amanda (Isaure Multrier), from school occasionally and their relationship forms the narrative arc that ends, strangely, at the Wimbledon tennis tournament.

David has been estranged from his mum (Greta Schacchi) from an early age and his sister, Sandrine (Ophélia Kolb), is a single parent. Clearly parenting is a key theme especially when the latter is killed in a terrorist attack; will David become Amanda’s guardian thus forcing him to take on responsibilities? It is the manner of the bereavement that offers the unusual perspective and it’s not entirely clear whether the film is investigating the trauma of such attacks or whether that is simply a catalyst for David’s life changing experience; I’m not sure the film knows. The attack, of which we only see the aftermath, is brilliantly staged by the way, clearly conveying the shock of finding a post-attack scene, especially when loved ones are involved. Would it have made any different if Sandrine had been killed in, say, a hit-and-run by a drunken driver? The only other time the realpolitik intrudes is when a hijab-clad woman is being abused for what she’s wearing – Peter Bradshaw explains the limitations of this scene in his review.

Regardless, the development of Amanda and David’s relationship is done well and the principles offer excellent performances. To complicate things his putative girlfriend, Léna (Stacy Martin), is injured in the attack and her difficulty in adapting to her PTSD is well drawn but doesn’t seem to relate specifically to the issues of parenthood. The two threads don’t entangle harmoniously.

The scriptwriters certainly had a problem with their denouement, which takes place on a bonding trip to Wimbledon. For reasons beyond me Amanda gets emotionally involved in the climax of a tennis match which is left at ‘deuce’ and apparently is a resolution for her. It’s mentioned in passing that David used to play tennis but that’s the only link between the characters and the sport. It’s true that on the trip to London he meets his mother for the first time in many years, thereby suggesting some kind of rapprochement between them, but it’s not elucidated what will happen next.

However, I enjoyed the film if only because it did offer an unusual perspective even if it failed to say much about it.

System Crasher (Systemsprenger, Germany, 2019) – LIFF6

Close to the knuckle

The last film I saw at this year’s Leeds International Film Festival proved to be the best: it had me weeping. Are films that make you so sad that you cry the antithesis of escapism or do they (hopefully) make us feel better about our own lives and so escaping to a worse place makes us feel better? In System Crasher we are taken into the world of Benni (played with astonishing brilliance by Hannah Zengel), a traumatised nine-year-old that even the seemingly robust German social services system cannot contain. Aristotle argued that the purpose of narratives was catharsis: the audience is purged of emotion and so feels satisfied. System Crasher just left me feeling sad but, importantly, empathetic to people with mental health problems and those that try to help them. Watching a wide range of films aids empathy for others, something that our divided times lacks in many instances.

Writer-director Nora Fingscheidt has produced a gripping narrative that sees social workers trying to do their best for Benni; though there is an implicit critique of the use of drugs. Interestingly, the Variety review sees this criticism as divisive and presumably in America there is more belief in pharmacological solutions? There is a moment, early in the film, when Micha (Albrecht Schuch) takes Benni under his wing and they spend three weeks in the woods. I’m sure in an American retelling this sort-of Walden would lead to a resolution; we are in Europe and such sentimentality is thankfully absent from this film. Incidentally, Variety‘s jibe about the film not really blaming anyone, even Benni’s mum, is wide of the mark for there is a heartbreaking scene when the social worker breaks down because of the mother’s uselessness. That said, Fingscheidt does not go for designating anyone as evil; that would be too simplistic. My partner trained as a therapist and worked with disturbed children; she confirmed the utter authenticity of the portrayal of traumatised youngsters. If the film was set in the UK, no doubt, the cuts to social services by the Tory government would have also formed an impediment to helping these children.

If I have one quibble, it’s with the final freeze frame which didn’t, for me, sum up the film; that said, it opens in the UK next week and I strongly recommend it.

The only film I was disappointed by at the festival was Synonyms (Synonymes, France-Israel-Germany, 2019) where a self-indulgent male gets into various situations in Paris. At first it seemed as if it was going to be a critique of Israel, but co-writer and director Nadav Lapid eschews politics, as far as I could tell, and the film becomes a mush where everything disappoints the protagonist.

 

Calm with Horses (UK-Ireland, 2019) – LIFF5

Arm’s Iago looks over him

This is an impressive feature film debut from director Nick Roland and writer Joe Murtagh (based on a Colin Barrett story of the same name). It features a low level gang in the west of Ireland who blight the lives of all they touch, including themselves. It is the not-very-bright protagonist, Arm (brilliantly played by Cosmo Jarvis who was in Lady Macbeth, UK, 2016), with whom we are invited to sympathise with the most despite the violence he metes out at the beginning of the film. Just before this he voiceovers, a technique not used in the rest of the film, that we shouldn’t think that men of violence like to be violent. It is an unnecessary statement because it soon becomes clear that that’s what the film’s about; in addition, Jarvis’ ‘hard man’ stare clearly conceals a deep vulnerability.

Arm is an ex-boxer who leaves the ring after killing a man during a bout and is recruited by the nascent leader of the Dever family, superbly played by Barry Keoghan, as his enforcer. There’s something of an Iago about Keoghan’s character, whispering into Arm’s ear about how his ex-partner is trying to blackmail him for money for his autistic son. You can almost see the conflict boiling beneath Arm’s battered face as he struggles with his loyalties. In the way it is pronounced, the ‘Dever family’ sounds like the ‘Devil family’ and the moniker is not far wrong.

Cinematographyer Piers McGrail manages to drain the stunning landscapes of western Ireland of their grandeur, giving a suitably gritty look that is far from the tourist ‘Kerrygold’ imagery. Most of the people, too, who populate the film are miles away from the whimsical friendliness of the Emerald Isle. Instead we see desperate people in desperate circumstances. There is some hope, though, through the mother of Arm’s child, played by Niamh Algar, who is striving to do the best for her difficult son; and Anthony Welsh has a small role as a BAME student from the north of England researching the use of horses in therapy and he punctures the insularity of the narrative world. Maybe in the original story the horses are more central; here they are peripheral.

It’s an impressive film that, although offering a sort of redemption, avoids any sentimentality in its ending. I’m looking forward to this talented crews’ next offerings. It’s due for release in the UK next March.

Ordinary Love (UK, 2019) – LIFF4

Quotidian existence

The quotidian, the everyday, has little purchase in narrative for most of us live it and many, when watching films, want to escape it. Thus narratives that are about love emphasise the extraordinary and ecstasy in romance; however, as is this film shows, everyday love can also be extraordinary. Theorists state that narratives require a disruption to the situation which the text will resolve at the climax and this is true, for the mainstream at least. In Ordinary Love, Joan and Tom’s retired routine is broken by the diagnosis of breast cancer and the film follows their relationship during the treatment. Cancer touches most people, as even people who are fortunate enough to avoid it are likely to know those who are unfortunate. So in this sense the disruption in this film’s narrative is eminently relatable to for all adults though the older you are the more likely you are to identify with the protagonists; their sixtysomethingness also makes it a film about heading toward the twilight of life.

Clearly this narrative is character based and the leads, Lesley Manville and Liam Neeson, are both superb; though extra plaudits to Manville for her bravery in displaying her aged body. Age is often treated with disgust, particularly by those who are younger; it is an Other that few desire but, as I used to point out to pupils who claimed they never want to get old, the alternative is worse. Neeson’s casting is potent as he’s best known these days for EuroCorp’s international thrillers, such as Taken series (2008-14, France-US-Spain), where he plays a male ego ideal who will solve problems with his ‘particular skillset’. In Ordinary Love he is ordinary and so emphasises the powerlessness partners can only feel in the face of such an illness.

Of course as a melodrama the film must use exaggeration for dramatic effect but it does so in a limited way. The use of emblems (symbols) is also restrained (a tropical fish and digging up a path amongst them) and such restraint is appropriate to the ordinariness of the narrative. It was written by Owen McCafferty, his first film, and directed by Lisa Barros D’Sa and Glenn Leyburn who made the excellent Good Vibrations (UK-Ireland, 2012) which was set in Belfast. Ordinary Love, too, is set in Ireland though it could happen anywhere.

Another thing I liked about the film was the listing of extras: everyone of them and they fill the screen at the end credits. Credit to everyone on the film.

Dogs Don’t Wear Pants (Koirat eivät käytä housuja, Finland-Latvia, 2019) – LIFF2

Finding life on the margins

Another film festival another Nordic film about grief – see Koko-di Koko-da. However Dogs Don’t Wear Pants doesn’t quite play out as expected. After a brilliant intro when protagonist Juha (Pekka Strang) is traumatised by loss, the narrative moves on a decade or so to find him still unable to function socially. He stumbles into a commercial BDSM dungeon and thinks he finds a way to reconnect with his loss.

Spoiler alert! It seems the film is going to suggest that Juha can be cured of his grief by his relationship with a dominatrix, Mona (Krista Kosonen), in the sense that it will take him to the ‘edge’ and so will recognise that his life is worth living after all. (Incidentally, Krista Kosonen’s appearance and icy demeanour reminded me of Major Kusanaga from Ghost in the Shell). However, co-writer and director J.-P. Valkeapää makes it far more interesting as he suggests the ‘perversions’ are actually potentially better than a bourgeois lifestyle; the moment Juha makes a key decision we are given a close-up of his discarded watch, a symbol of conspicuous consumption.

As is appropriate, many of the scenes are excruciating to watch (having had a tooth removed recently didn’t help my experience) though not sexually titillating. The widescreen compositions are often gorgeous, enhanced by the lurid lighting of the BDSM den. Characters are sometimes framed as if in the margins by doorways further enhancing the psychological position of the characters.

Juha has a young daughter, Elli; the intro is an inversion of Don’t Look Now‘s (UK-Italy, 1973) with the mother as the victim. A narrative strand deals with Elli’s ‘coming of age’ but it doesn’t investigate her trauma and my sympathies were more with her than her dad. She starts a relationship with a boy of her age but this, too, is fragmentary. Similarly, Mona’s motivation for her lifestyle is under-developed: on the one hand it could be argued she doesn’t need one, on the other, because she also seems to be traumatised given her tearful breakdown toward the end of the film, we do need an explanation. Also, I’m not sure the title works particularly well, as its quirkiness does not sum up the film. I also get sense that the male character development is deemed to be the important trajectory, whilst the females are ‘sounding boards’. I’m not saying all films have to be even-handed in terms of gender representation but because Dogs hints at backstories for the women it should develop them more.

Despite these criticisms, when the film is released (apparently September 2020 in the UK), if you’re not too squeamish, I recommend a viewing.