2010's, Bob Odenkirk, Chris Cooper, Coming-of-Age, Drama, Eliza Scanlen, Emma Watson, Florence Pugh, Greta Gerwig, James Norton, Laura Dern, Little Women, Meryl Streep, Saoirse Ronan, Timothée Chalamet, Tracy Letts
Greta Gerwig brings the classic novel of Louisa May Alcott to life with her interpretation of Little Women. It emerges as a charming, moving and lively portrait of young womanhood and family, complete with an inventively structured narrative and simply stellar performances. You have to see this film it’s as simple as that.
In Concord, Massachusetts, the four March sisters; rule abiding beauty Meg( Emma Watson), boisterous aspiring writer Jo( Saoirse Ronan), painfully shy music lover Beth( Eliza Scanlen) and spoiled, petulant madam Amy( Florence Pugh), grow up with their caring Marmee( Laura Dern) while their father( Bob Odenkirk) is away fighting in the American Civil War. Times are tough and the family are forced to make do without luxuries, but with their closeness and spirit they get through it as best as they can with their warm-hearted and rational mother. Life before them doesn’t really offer many opportunities for women, but feisty Jo is willing to smash those limitations with her writing. Though she’s met with skepticism and even doubts herself, her spirited self won’t rest. She befriends along with her sisters Laurie( Timothée Chalamet); a boy who lives nearby and wants adventure. He in turn likes the feeling of family that the March household has as he finds his Grandfather stern and his life dull. He begins to romantically like Jo, but finds it isn’t always easy in love. Meg is concerned with being a demure lady and has her heart set on a husband and family, preferably with money. She discovers that money isn’t everything when she meets a tutor by the name of John Brooke( James Norton) who doesn’t have a penny. While Meg looks on as other ladies grow in wealth, she only occasionally chafes at it when she realises how good her situation is. Awkward but thoroughly kind-hearted Beth is largely confined to the house as she is shy and prefers to busy herself by playing the piano. Mr Laurence( Chris Cooper) sees this and offers the use of his piano, to the delight of the young girl. Amy, who is often vain and belligerent, aspires to be an artist though she either wants to be “great or nothing”. The girls endure hardship, sickness in the case of Beth’s bout with Scarlet Fever and their eyes being opened to the world, under the eyes of Marmee and traditional maven Aunt March( Meryl Streep), who enjoys lecturing the family she considers disobedient. The narrative weaves back and forward in time to the American Civil War and the years after it, exploring events in the form of recollection and memory.
With Lady Bird, Greta Gerwig announced herself as a talented director. With Little Women, she makes good on her promise to deliver a timeless story with newfound verve and appeal. As previously stated, the choice to shoot the film in a non-linear fashion is an inspired one. Kudos to Gerwig for using it to create an immediacy with the women at the heart of the story. For instance, we are introduced to the sisters separately rather than the traditional all together round the fireplace that’s shown in more traditional versions. I liked seeing them later on and grown up, before cutting back to their childhoods. It creates a vivid contrast, effortlessly displaying the changes in characters and circumstances through being brightly coloured in cinematography for the portions of childhood and more subdued in the adult sections. It’s a gorgeous visual approach that also supplies us with humour, growth and metaphor. It’s a stroke of intelligence and risk to tell such a well known story in this way, but Greta Gerwig clearly understands what she is doing and the results speak successfully for themselves. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry and you’ll love being in the company of these four memorable ladies.
Her script is natural and free flowing, with the girl often talking over each other in the cosy home sequences which creates a believable bond as sisters. That’s not to say all the dialogue is like this, in fact it’s very pertinent and acute, but I enjoyed the feeling of sisters having their say in their own way. There is a hustle and bustle to their home life, which marks it in contrast to many a film set in another era that usually feel a bit mannered or overly polite. Little Women has gusto and charm as the sisters fight, rub along together and generally form a feeling go camaraderie the age won’t intrude on. It’s become clear that Gerwig is a fan of exploring young womanhood and family, which was seen in Lady Bird and now in Little Women. And how she examines that even though times have changed, there are still in some places limitations placed on women who want to burst through the glass ceiling. Little Women gets that across with zest and a certain modernity, which thankfully doesn’t put the original story in jeopardy but actually adds to the experience. Alexandre Desplat is a masterful choice for composer as is evidenced by his gorgeous score. Making spirited use of piano along with well timed strings, there is a vibrancy to his music that fits the story perfectly. Seriously, the score should definitely be getting awards notice come that season and I sincerely hope it does.
Saoirse Ronan leads the way with another sterling performance. She gets the unkempt energy, boundless enthusiasm and creeping self-doubt vulnerability just right for Jo. Ronan shows that Jo is often at the mercy of herself and her spirited nature, but how she’s trying to find her own place in the world in a time that isn’t exactly keen on it. Ronan is truly alive here and makes the part of Jo her own, which is saying something as it’s a role that’s been played so many times and can be hard to put your own spin on. Thankfully, Saoirse Ronan is up to the task and splendidly pulls it off much to my delight. Florence Pugh, who is having a banner year so far, closes it off with yet another believable and confident performance. She brings out the bratty and vindictive parts of Amy as a child and her shrewd understanding as an adult. The gifted Pugh gets both ages spot on, charting the rise of a girl whose snooty attitude melts as she learns how to survive in society and play the game better than anyone. I enjoyed how fleshed out Amy was in this version, too often she’s relegated to just being the spoiled one. Yet thankfully, with the script and the luminous Florence Pugh injecting smarts, Amy is given a new lease of life. These two actresses are the main standouts and should both expect award notices, but the rest of the cast is not to be sniffed at either as they fill out the cast of characters with care and skill. Emma Watson has the grace and heart of Meg just right, as she occasionally fails against society but finds that happiness is where romance is at. Some say Meg is the passive part and most traditional of the sisters, but I think that with Watson she emerges with some agency. Eliza Scanlen has the sweet face and sense of humanity about her that suits Beth and doesn’t make her just a saintly figure. She’s one of the driving forces, particularly in her bond with Jo and Scanlen plays to that with great nuance.
Timothée Chalamet, of floppy hair and eyes that express a lot and most effectively sadness, is ideally cast as Laurie, who comes to be like another member of the March family but who is completely love struck by Jo. He’s spirited and gangly, always moving about and his kinetic behaviour and wearing of emotion on his sleeve ensures Chalamet and Ronan once again prove how effective their chemistry is whenever they are together. Mind you, he has great chemistry with all the women, but in particular Ronan and eventually Pugh. Laura Dern has just the right amount of grit and maternal love as one of the guiding forces for the girl, while Chris Cooper is crusty but mellowed as the neighbour who grows to become close to the March family. Stealing her scenes is the always dependable Meryl Streep, who you can tell had a blast playing the opinionated and cutting Aunt March. She’s a lot of fun to watch as this matron who always has to make a point of something, even if it’s insulting. If there’s a tiny flaw, it’s in that both Bob Odenkirk and James Norton are not given a lot to do. Both are accomplished actors so it would have been nice to have seen them show off some of their talent. But aside from that, I don’t have many quibbles with this movie. Tracy Letts is entertaining in his small but memorable role of publisher who is initially dismissive of Jo, but grows quite fond of her as time goes by.
With Greta Gerwig at the helm, Little Women comes to sparkling life and proves that certain stories can still be fresh no matter how many times it’s been adapted. A winning coming of age story that captures the imagination and heart without resorting to sentimentality, I can’t recommend this version of Little Women highly enough for its energy and splendid cast.
Ari Aster follows up his creepy and startling debut Hereditary with Midsommar; an ambitious, head-spinning horror that builds to a stocking finale, while supplying tension, tiered meanings and an immensely dedicated performance from Florence Pugh.
Dani( Florence Pugh) is a young woman who’s just experienced a gut-wrenching trauma. Her bipolar sister committed suicide via inhaling carbon monoxide and killing her parents as well. Broken by this, Dani turns to boyfriend Christian( Jack Reynor) , who is not exactly helpful and more interested in himself. Their relationship was precarious as it was and now Dani leans on him for support which he is unable to supply her with. A few months pass and Christian, who is studying anthropology for a PHD, is invited by his Swedish friend Pelle(Vilhelm Blomgren) to a festival in his Nordic homeland. He is to be joined by fellow students reasonable Josh( William Jackson Harper) and obnoxious Mark(Will Poulter). Dani finds out and Christians reluctantly asks her to come with them, to which she accepts. She’s still reeling from her trauma and suffering with depression and anxiety, but the trip sounds like a good getaway for her. Touching down in Sweden, they go back to nature among the wide fields and mountains that are populated by a commune. Dani and the others are soon witness to the ways in which they celebrate and their intriguing but slightly off kilter ways of ritual and worship. At first, the practices seem odd but just slightly different and nothing too serious. There’s dancing, ingestion of strange ingredients with hallucinogenic qualities and the fact that everyone does things in a group which while weird doesn’t really give the impression of anything dark or macabre. Yet with growing horror, events get ramped up and grisly horror ensues for the visitors, most of all fragile Dani. What started out as a sojourn to a festival with a difference slowly morphs into a waking nightmare for Dani as things just get more and more intense, impacting on her already tenuous mental state.
Ari Aster proves Hereditary was no fluke with this electrifying and bizarre blend of psychological folk horror and a meditation on trauma. He goes for the creeping approach, peppering in shocks and even snippets of humour at the start then slowly bubbling away at the uneasiness mounting like a fit to burst volcano. Grief seems to be a subject with which Ari Aster is familiar with and Midsommar continues in that vein but from a more surreal and grander scale. The most obvious comparison to Midsommar is The Wicker Man. Both films feature a community that’s pagan religion deviates from what is deemed traditional and most of the action takes place in sunlight. References can be seen and are well done( for me it’s a high comparison with a classic), but Midsommar is its own film with a hallucinogenic sensibility and layered drama. While very much a horror film, Midsommar functions as an exploration of reaction to trauma, purging the soul and toxic relationships. The last mentioned point on relationships is especially true as things continue to go downhill for Dani. The horror hits home more for that very reason and then some. I believe Midsommar is the type of movie that is rewarding upon watching again. Pockets of information are scattered often in plain sight but make more sense once the whole picture comes together with frightening force. You’ll be left thinking about the film no matter how you feel about it that’s for sure and certain.
On a visual level, Midsommar is an assault on the senses. From a flipped shot that goes upside down in arresting fashion to the houses the commune live in that are decorated with telling murals, you can’t escape the sensory overlord and beautiful cinematography. The use of wide shots and aerial shots captures the surrounding in majestic form, fleshing out the setting that is as breathtaking as it is unsettling. Bathing events in a mostly bright sheen, horror plays out against flora and fauna in a most peculiar way. The setting is alive, quite literally in some parts as you’ll no doubt be witness to if you venture out to see Midsommar. One of my favourite touches is Dani among the ladies dancing around in circles, adorned with a flower headdress. It’s a scene that overlaps images to a dazzling effect and perfectly sums up the unusual stance of this movie. It’s spellbinding even when outrageous and stomach churning festivities are taking place, making sure you never quite look away from what’s presented to your eyes.The use of sound is exemplary, from the unusual rhythms and punctuated noises to the eerie sense of silence and stillness. It compliments the atmosphere of something being very sinister and extremely horrifying to come.
At the heart of everything is the promising Florence Pugh. Over the last few years she has impressed me with her versatility and she doesn’t disappoint with her performance in Midsommar. She’s contained and crumbling under the burden of grief, constantly attempting to stifle her feelings. When it all comes out, Pugh nails the anguish and the sense of release, coupled with the slow and crushing sense of falling deeper into horror( or is it something else?) Her eyes are fascinating at profiling her internalised emotions that eventually reveal themselves with shocking intensity and surprising depth. Put simply, Florence Pugh impresses throughout with her surrender to challenging material. Jack Reynor nails it as the conceited boyfriend who gets put through his own horror and Reynor shines in the horrifying last act. Vilhelm Blomgren, William Jackson Harper and Will Poulter flesh out the other men of the movie who experience the terror unfolding, with Will Poulter the most memorable as the guy obsessed with getting sexy action and getting a lot more than he bargained for. As good as the guys are though, Midsommar belongs to the exceptional Florence Pugh who is for my money, going places.
Horrifying, hypnotic and hard to forget, Midsommar is one of the most unsettling films I’ve seen in a while. But like it’s predecessor, once you’ve viewed it, you can’t shake it. Ari Aster is shaping up to be a major league director and Florence Pugh is fast becoming a prominent and talented actress to watch.