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.

Harriet (US, 2019)

Women doing it for themselves

I knew the name Harriet Tubman and her reputation as a woman who rescued slaves after rescuing herself; however, I had no idea what a ‘super hero’ she was. African American women, in particular, struggle to be heard and the fact that Kasi Lemmons has managed to direct five features since her debut Eve’s Bayou (US, 1997) is a testament to her determination. She wrote the script, based on work by Gregory Allen Howard, but was always going to struggle to present Tubman’s life fully in a two-hour film. As it is, the early scenes, when she was a slave, rattle along quickly in the nature of biopics before settling to a slightly more sedate dramatic development. As postscripts, Tubman’s gobsmacking role in the civil war is covered in one scene and the last 50 years of her life via a caption.

I struggled at first to engage with the film, Terence Blanchard’s lush American-pastoral score alienated me, and the scenes of plantation cruelty seemed a bit passé when compared to, say, 12 Years a Slave. Though Lemmons herself stated she wished to avoid the clichés of presenting plantation life as this was a ‘freedom film’. However, once Tubman (as she renamed herself) escaped, the jaw-dropping bravery of the woman (which would be unbelievable in fiction) ensures the narrative is gripping. As the film notes, in the end credits, some of the scenes are fictionalised, however the portrayal of the essential truth of what Tubman did is enough to forgive any dramatic embellishments.

Tubman became a conductor on the underground railway, a route managed by abolitonists who helped runaways escape to the north. Colson Whitehead’s brilliant novel, The Underground Railway (2016), is better at portraying the bravery of those involved, but that wasn’t Harriet‘s subject. British actor Cynthia Erivo is sensational in the lead and Janelle Monáe brings great charisma to a supporting role. In an industry were colour wasn’t a bar Monáe would be a fully fledged film star (though she may not want to be one as she has plenty of other interests).

The film has done decent business in America; to date it’s almost reached the box office of 12 Years a Slave that was more of a (relative) hit in the UK. There were three of us in the cinema for the screening I attended showing that Steve McQueen’s Oscar winner is the exception rather than the rule for ‘black themed’ films in the UK. Of course, the idea of ‘black themed’ is racist nonsense as ‘white themed’ is never mentioned as we are assumed to be universal.

I particularly liked the use of songs, for example when Tubman tells her mother she has to leave she sings her farewell whilst her mother is working in the field. These were the songs the underground railway used to communicate, necessary because most of the slaves were kept illiterate. Wikipedia tells me:

One reportedly coded Underground Railroad song is “Follow the Drinkin’ Gourd“. [1] The song’s title is said to refer to the star formation (an asterism) known in America as the Big Dipper and in Europe as The Plough.

The message being, ‘go north’. Tubman was enslaved in Maryland, a mere 100 miles south of the Mason-Dixon line. Eviro has a beautiful voice and came to fame via the musical version of The Color Purple on Broadway; she was also in Widows.

Harriet is an essential film because of what it tells us about humanity: the best and the worst. Everyone would be better for seeing it.

The Aeronauts (UK-US, 2019) – LFF4

Invisible CGI

I tend to choose my films ‘blind’ at film festivals: i.e. I pack as many as I can in the time available. So I was a bit dismayed to see I’d chosen a mainstream film that will be in ‘cinemas everywhere’ in a couple of weeks. Add to that it is a period drama, not my favourite, and reliant on CGI for much of its running time, I could have been in for a stinker. I wasn’t.

There’s barely a film made without CGI (Bait is one) but the question is whether the audience notices it. It’s always been the case that there are two types of special effects: invisible and visible. The visible ones show us impossible scenes so Ray Harryhausen’s skeletons in Jason and the Argonauts (UK-US, 1963) are visible as are all the superheroes in Marvel movies. Invisible special effects are those that simulate what happens in the real world but are too expensive to stage – as such they are easily not perceived as special effects. One example of a ‘visible’ ‘invisible’ special effect would be the ‘in orbit’ location of Gravity because we know the actors were not filmed in space. The same is true of the brilliant staging of the balloon journey in The Aeronauts because we know that Felicity Jones and Eddie Redmayne could not be filmed in that location. I’m not arguing against visible special effects, only against films that rely upon them for their dramatic effect. There’s been a Twitter debate lately about whether Marvel films are cinema (Scorsese and Loach say ‘no’) and although The Aeronauts is CGI heavy the thrill of the narrative is such that it is very easy to forget that these special effects are visible.

The film is based on a ‘true story’, the highest balloon ascent to date in 1862, I’ve no idea the degree of truth contained in the narrative. That’s not the point of the film: it’s clear the gender politics, Jones is the action hero, are today’s. The narrative covers the 90 minute flight with numerous flashbacks to give context and it is the human drama, of Victorian adventurism and female repression, that roots the film in a believable world thus allowing us to truly care (well, I did) for the protagonists in peril.

Tom Harper directs the action sequences very well and credit is due to Michael Dawson and his team for the special effects. The suspension of disbelief is still required for the appreciation of film, I think, which is why most CGI-heavy movies leave me cold as I don’t believe them. It’s as because they look convincing, yes I can see the Hulk exists, that I don’t believe in them and they usually fail to engage me either intellectually or emotionally. In The Aeronauts I knew the actors were ‘green screening’ but was so engrossed I forgot.

The Promised Land (Ziemia obiecana, Poland, 1975)

Capitalists on the make

I saw the 140 minute release of The Promised Land, it was originally three hours but Polish TV broadcast an eight-part version in one hour episodes; a bit like the reworking of the first two Godfather films I imagine. It is certainly a film of epic scope, based on a classic Polish novel by Władysław Stanisław Reymont, detailing the febrile atmosphere in Łódź in the latter years of the 19th century. Karol, Moryc and Maks are, respectively, Polish, Jewish and German friends who are determined to build a cotton factory. Given a number of mills are being burned down for insurance purposes at the time, this is a dicey undertaking.

I must admit to struggling to follow the narrative in some parts. It covers a number of years, but it wasn’t clear how many, and eschews straightforward characterisation; I’m not sure if Moryc was at some points conspiring against his friends and Karol’s infatuation with a married woman is not entirely convincing. However, this is an Andrzej Wadja film and the direction is often stupendous as is the art direction by Andrzej Halinsk; the use of colour is often stunning. As is the setting; Łódź, Wadja discovered when making the film despite having been a student in the city, retained many of its old factories and the scenes in the mill, with the looms, have a documentary quality (see below). Tonally, though, the film is varied and melodrama crops up throughout, particularly toward the end. I’ve nothing against melodrama, but the mix with the sometimes elliptic narrative, and realism of the factory scenes, is somewhat uneasy. Very uneasy is the characterisation of the Jewish money lenders. Apparently the film was accused of anti-semitism in America when it was nominated for an Oscar though the accusation was articulated, at a press conference, by someone who hadn’t seen the film. I doubt Wadja was anti-semitic as the money-grubbing isn’t limited to Jews in the film; indeed it is Karol, a son of a Polish aristocrat, who is seen as the most corrupt in the devastating ending of the film.

Looming disaster

The comparison to The Godfather is also relevant given the three are characterised as gangsters on some occasions. The scene where Moryc faces down the money lender emphasises this as we watch him prepare for the meeting by choosing carefully his clothes; particularly his hat. At the end of the scene he winks at the camera.

A lot is packed into the film, maybe the three hour version would make the narrative clearer, and it would no doubt reward a second viewing.