Little Women

Emma.

14/02/20

Some people bemoan their prevalence, but I don’t object to remakes of classics, so long as they’re done well. Little Women was one of my favourite films of 2019, with Greta Gerwig demonstrating exactly how worthwhile such revisitings can be. I like the vim and vigour that seems to be on-trend, the opening up of old favourites to a brand new audience.

Admittedly, I’m puzzled – and a little irked – by the addition of a full stop to Emma.. It seems affected, a bit try-hard. I’m hardly mollified by the explanations I find on-line either: there’s a ‘period’ because it’s a period drama (doh!) or – worse – this is the final, definitive version of the tale. (No, that would be the book.)

Still, I’m keen to see Emma., particularly as the poster, trailer and cast list hint at something sprightly and fun. I love Jane Austen’s novel, and have enjoyed a range of adaptations (Clueless, obviously, is the best). Eleanor Catton is also a writer I admire. But, sadly, neither her script nor Autumn de Wilde’s direction offer us anything more than a pretty confection.

Speaking of which, there is a lot of pretty confectionary in this film, with towering four or five-layer cakes present on almost every table (disappointingly, we never see them cut; I’d like to know what they look like inside). The dresses are gorgeous too, and the furnishings. In fact, it’s all rather ravishing, but there’s almost no substance – an empty edifice, just like the cakes.

It never feels real. Every emotion seems transient, every slight soon forgotten. Emma (Anya Taylor-Joy) is, as we know, handsome, clever and rich. She’s unbound by the need to marry, as she is financially secure, and anyway, her father (Bill Nighy) needs her at home. To stave off the boredom of wandering around a big posh house and wearing nice frocks, she decides to indulge in a spot of match-making. But it takes Emma some time to realise that other people aren’t as privileged as her, and that her meddling can cause them actual hardship. For a modern audience, this is a problematic narrative, with its underlying assertion that we should all know our place. But this is never addressed, not even obliquely; in fact, if I didn’t know the source material, I don’t think I’d be able to ascertain the social hierarchy at all. The costumes don’t make it clear, nor do the characters’ interactions. Just sometimes we are told that a character is poor, or that their prospects aren’t too good.

The characters aren’t defined enough, either, especially the men. The differences between Mr Knightley (Johnny Flynn), Mr Elton (Josh O’Connor) and Frank Churchill (Callum Turner) are barely perceptible; in the novel, the three are worlds apart. In fact, although Flynn performs well in the role, I don’t think the script even makes clear who Knightley is; I’ll wager many a newcomer to the story assumes he’s Emma’s brother at first.

Mia Goth is the standout, imbuing the unfortunate Harriet Smith with real charm and naïvety. Her nervous reverence for Emma is perfectly drawn. Miranda Hart also puts in a decent turn as Miss Bates, offering us the film’s only real moment of authentic emotion and poignancy.

All in all, this feels like an opportunity missed, a waste of talent and potential.

2.9 stars

Susan Singfield

Film Bouquets 2019

Bouquets&Brickbats

Bouquets&Brickbats

Bouquets&Brickbats

It’s that time again when we award (virtual) bouquets to our favourite films of the year. As ever, the final choice may not always reflect the films that scored the highest at time of viewing, but rather those that have stayed with us most indelibly.

The Favourite (director – Yorgos Lanthimos; writers – Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara)

Capernaum (director – Nadine Labaki; writers – Nadine Labaki, Jihad Hojeily and Michelle Keserwany)

Eighth Grade (writer/director – Bo Burnham)

Booksmart (director – Olivia Wilde; writers – Emily Halperm, Sarah Haskins, Susanna Fogel and Katie Silberman)

Beats (director – Brian Welsh; writer – Kieran Hurley)

Rocketman (director – Dexter Fletcher; writer – Lee Hall)

Animals (director – Sophie Hyde; writer – Emma Jane Unsworth)

Hustlers (director – Lorene Scafaria; writers – Lorene Scafaria and Jessica Pressler)

Joker (director – Todd Phillips; writers – Todd Phillips and Scott Silver)

Monos (director – Alejandro Landes; writers – Alejandro Landes and Alexis Dos Santos)

Honey Boy (director – Alma Har’el; writer – Shia LaBeouf)

Little Women (director – Greta Gerwig; writers – Greta Gerwig and Louisa May Alcott)

 

Philip Caveney & Susan Singfield

 

 

 

 

Little Women

15/12/19

Here, at last, are screen versions of the Little Women I’ve had in my head since I read the book when I was eight. Headstrong, unconventional Jo, born to write and desperate for a bigger life; romantic Meg, yearning for riches but choosing (relative) impoverishment with her one true love; shy, saintly, not-long-for-this-world Beth; and Amy, little Amy, all drive and ambition, always trying to impress (or beat) Jo.

I grew up with these girls, and every adaptation I’ve seen has failed to realise them convincingly. Except Jo, of course; there are lots of lovely screen-Jos (Katherine Hepburn, June Allyson, Winona Ryder). She’s the most captivating character, the Lizzie Bennett: it’s easy for a good actor to capture her spirit. But her movie sisters have always been a disappointment to me, even when played by talented performers. They’ve never felt right. Until now.

Saoirse Ronan makes a marvellous Jo (of course she does); Emma Watson perfectly embodies Meg’s earnest longing; Eliza Scanlen imbues Beth with strength as well as a sweet nature. But it’s Florence Pugh’s pugnacious, jealous Amy that has me almost exclaiming with delight. Here she is: a proud and lively girl, both friend and rival to her big sister Jo. She’s bloody brilliant.

Writer-director Greta Gerwig shows us once again how talented she is: this is Little Women writ large, barely deviating from the source material, but bringing contemporary resonances to the fore. There’s less piety and sermonising here than there is in Alcott’s novel, and the chronology is disrupted, so that we first meet Jo as an already published, ambitious woman, negotiating the terms for her latest stories while working in New York. The girls’ childhood is shown through a series of flashbacks, and we flit back and forth in time, never confused, even though the same actors perform throughout, ageing ten years through hairstyles, clothing, poise and gait. This structure gives prominence to the women the girls become, contrasting their childhood aspirations with what they actually achieve.

There’s such vivacity and energy here, it’s impossible not to be charmed; Gerwig has captured the very heart of Alcott’s fictionalised autobiography. The story arc actually works better in the film, and the audacious ending is a genuine master-stroke.

Timothée Chalamet is an inspired choice for Laurie, depicting with ease the neighbour’s loneliness and need for love, as well as his playful decadence. Laura Dern makes an excellent Marmee, and who else but Meryl Streep could have played Aunt March to Ronan’s Jo?

I have a couple of quibbles. I don’t know why middle-aged, paunchy, German Professor Bhaer is replaced with a young, handsome Frenchman (Louis Garrel);  why shouldn’t Jo establish a less conventional friendship? And I would like to see more of Meg: her character is well-established, but her storylines are too truncated, I think.

But honestly, these are just tiny niggles. This movie makes me really happy; indeed, the last ten minutes have me grinning so widely I actually hurt my face. Bravo! A fabulous film to end the year.

5 stars

Susan Singfield