Little Women

Little Women (2019)

Written and directed by Greta Gerwig

I cannot overstate how much I love going to the movies. Even after six years of study and a double major in Creative Writing and Screen Studies, my fascination with visual storytelling and the moving image hasn’t waned. 

Narrative film still delights and moves me, and this adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s classic text is a great example of why. Last night I went with a girlfriend to a member’s pre-screening of Little Women at the State Cinema in North Hobart and we were thoroughly entertained. 

If anyone was in any doubt of Gerwig’s credentials as a director or screenwriter, this should put them to rest. Using multiple elements of fabulous casting, a great script, believable costuming, subtle lighting, excellent framing and editing, Gerwig offers a reimagined version of the March sisters that doesn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.

From the outset, the most notable difference is that Gerwig skews time and tells the story in a series of flashbacks, usually triggered by something Jo has seen or heard. Once I got into the rhythm of this, it gave a far more satisfying experience than a standard linear narrative remake, and offered a lot more depth to the character’s development from adolescent girls to young women. This is particularly relevant to the often maligned Amy, the youngest sister, who Florence Pugh masterfully takes from a mischievous girl trying to keep up with her older sisters to an accomplished and determined young woman. 

The cast are uniformly excellent and the magic between Timothee Chalomet’s Laurie and Saoirse Ronan’s Jo is delightful as ever, but the scenes between Jo and her mother, played by Laura Dern are truly powerful. Emma Watson is delightful as good-natured Meg (though I felt she wasn’t as well served in the script as Jo, Beth and especially Amy), and Australian actor Eliza Scanlen takes the difficult role of Beth and makes it believable rather than melodramatic and maudlin. Throw in Meryl Streep, Chris Cooper and Bob Odenkirk and it’s a killer line up! My only real casting criticism is James Norton and Louis Garrel are too young and far too good looking for John Brooke and Friedrich Bhaer respectively – but it’s minor! 

Overlaid with a beautifully balanced score from Alexandre Desplat, and period-appropriate costumes from Jacqueline Durran I think Gerwig’s adaptation is a triumph. Overall, this is a fine reworking of a much loved classic that captures much of the free spiritedness of Alcott’s book, bringing the March family squarely into the 21st century. Although the ending isn’t strictly true to the original text, it fits well in Gerwig’s reimagined world, bringing new life and empowerment to the sisters. 

Little Women opens 1 January 2020 at the State Cinema and would make a perfect mother/daughter or sister’s date.

Lady Macbeth

Lady Macbeth (2016) Screenplay by Alice Birch (based on ‘Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk’ by Nikolai Leskov). Directed by William Oldroyd.

The weather, (being spring in Tasmania) has taken a turn for the worse, so I’ve been watching lots of movies – and what better backdrop for an unashamedly Gothic drama. Lady Macbeth has been on my list since mid year, when I heard a very positive review by Mark Kermode on BBC Radio 5 Live’s Kermode and Mayo’s Film Review podcast. I don’t usually buy into movie hype, preferring to make up my own mind, but in the case of Lady Macbeth, all of it is true.

I should say that this is not a movie for the faint-of-heart and doesn’t hold back. It is by turns, breathtakingly beautiful, sensual, obsessive, passionate, brutally violent and tragic. And I loved every minute of it.

Set in 1860’s England, this is the story of Katherine, a young girl who was “purchased along with a piece of land not fit to put a cow on” by wealthy collier’s son Alexander Lester and becomes his wife. As Mrs Lester, she is forced to conform to what ladies are and how they should behave, though Alexander shows no sexual interest in her and Katherine has no interest in conforming for any man.

One of the most notable things about this film (and there are many) are the use of landscape and place. The house is cold and shuttered each night, and scenes of Katherine looking out to the surrounding forest are all the more effective as the trees are reflected in the windows that encase her. The surrounding moorland is bleak but strangely exhilarating and an opportunity for freedom for Katherine.

I was surprised to find this was William Oldroyd’s directorial feature debut, but his background is in theatre and opera direction and here, he shines. The framing and lighting are glorious and precise throughout and Oldroyd allows the actors to do their jobs without getting too much in the way. The silences and stillness tell as much as the characters’ conversations – but that is not to say that the dialogue lacks in any way. The fine screenplay by Alice Birch is an adaption of Leskov’s ‘Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk’, a 19th century work I’m not familiar with but I intend to seek out.

Overall, the sound design provides a sense of oppressive stillness in the house and there is almost no music in the entire film, relying instead on the natural soundscape. This works in tandem with the subtle direction and is a welcome relief from the many soundtracks in films that constantly tell the viewer what we’re supposed to be feeling.

The subjugation of women is a strong theme throughout the film but Katherine’s passion, which turns to obsession and finally, a twisted, steely resolve is central to the movie. The cast are without exception excellent – but Florence Pugh is utterly astonishing in the lead role.

In the final act, it would’ve been so very easy for this to descend into standard Gothic-themed melodrama, but it never does. The tragedy is too real for that.

A modern Gothic masterpiece.