Greta Gerwig’s ‘Little Women’ is Simply Brilliant

It was published back in 1868, but Louisa May Alcott’s “Little Women” remains one of the most timeless novels ever written. It has been made into a movie six times, been turned into several shows on television, was eventually adapted into a musical, and even an opera was created out of it. Taking this into account, it should be no surprise this particular piece of literature remains a popular one from one generation to the next.

Now we have the seventh adaptation of “Little Women,” and it comes to us courtesy of writer and director Greta Gerwig who is still riding high off of her success with “Lady Bird.” Is it better than Gilliam Armstrong’s 1994 cinematic adaptation which starred Winona Ruder? I don’t know, and at this point I don’t care because making such comparisons threatens to do a real disservice to both versions. All that matters is Gerwig has taken this classic novel and turned it into a motion picture which is uniquely her own. A story which has been read and told to others over the ages now feels fresh again, and it is one of the best films of 2019.

Alcott’s “Little Women” was originally published in two volumes, the first which dealt with March sisters’ (Jo, Mary, Beth and Amy) childhood in Massachusetts, and the second which followed them into their adult years. While previous versions have presenting the story in a linear fashion, Gerwig dares to tell the tale in a non-linear fashion as she has the present and past intertwining with one another. This has the result of giving the story and its characters more depth than was already there, and the emotions are more powerful as a result.

Now granted, this non-linear approach was a bit jarring for me because, at first, it was a little hard to figure out where things were taking place. But thanks to director of photography Yorick Le Saux who uses different strokes of light to differentiate the two parts, I did eventually gain a foothold on where things were going. The childhood sequences are painted in a beautiful set of hues which typically color our most nostalgic memories, and the adult scenes are illustrated with darker and more stark colors to remind us of how harsh the real world can be.

Looking back at Armstrong’s “Little Women,” it almost seemed fantastical in the way it portrayed the March family as if they had it made. Gerwig’s version reminds us of how they lived in poverty and were forced to fend for themselves while the patriarch (played by Bob Odenkirk) is away fighting as a soldier in the Civil War. But thanks to the wealthy Mr. Laurence (Chris Cooper), they have a friend who will help them during the toughest of times. Isn’t that great? You know, when the rich went out of their way to help out the poor?

“Little Women” features a bevy of fantastic performances from a gifted cast. Saoirse Ronan is ever so wonderful as Jo, the most free-spirited March sisters who is determined to become a writer and defy society’s expectations of her as a lady. Ronan inhabits this character in such a marvelous way to where her spirit proved to be infectious, and she makes you want to follow along with here from start to finish. She is so full of joy here, and you want to experience this joy with her.

Another key performance comes from Florence Pugh who plays the artistically inclined Amy March. Pugh already wowed us earlier this year in the deeply unnerving “Midsommar,” and here she gets to play this movie’s most complex character as Amy struggles to separate her expected duties as a woman from what her heart is telling her to do. Pugh does excellent work in portraying the conflict within Amy as her words express a surrender to what society expects of her even as her eyes show what her heart truly desires more than anything else.

It is also great to see Laura Dern here as the matriarch of the March family, Marmee. While she has done a lot of great work on television over the years, the recent movies Dern has appeared in like “Cold Pursuit” have made unforgivably poor use of her talent. Here, Gerwig gives her a platform to do some of her most memorable work on the silver screen in some time, and she makes the most of it. Dern even gives Marmee an extra layer of depth when she admits how her pleasant nature manages to hide how angry she is at the world around her.

The rest of the cast features actors you can never go wrong with. Meryl Streep is a joy as always, this time playing the far too high-minded Aunt March. Timothee Chalamet shows incredible range as he takes Theodore “Laurie” Laurence from a hopelessly naïve young man to a troubled soul whose broken heart can never be easily mended, and then he shows us the person who arrives on the other side of all that to tremendous effect. Emma Watson makes Margaret “May” March into a character who goes from having endless anxiety about her place in society to becoming a strong individual who comes to see what her heart desires most in life. And then there’s Tracy Letts who has appeared in what seems like every other movie this past year, and he plays Jo’s story editor Mr. Dashwood to great effect.

Gerwig’s “Little Women” is one of those films which had me completely absorbed and engrossed in its story and characters to where I never took my eyes off the screen. There is not a single false note to be found here as Gerwig shows off a sheer confidence as a director which makes clear how her previous successes behind the camera were no fluke. In taking one of the most classic novels ever written, one which has been adapted dozens upon dozens of times, she shows a mastery over the material to where it is impossible to think anyone else could have done as great a job as she has here.

Many will probably view “Little Women” as nothing more than a “chick flick,” but this rather shallow description does it no justice. Regardless of what your gender or sexual preference is, there is a lot of us in these unforgettable ladies. They yearn for better futures, get caught up in the innocence of their childhood to where they let their collective imaginations run wild, and they struggle with what a cruel world which expects only so much from them. Please do not try to convince me you cannot relate to these women go through because of who you think you are. Their struggles are not very different from our own, and this makes this particular adaptation so remarkable as we relate to them in inescapable ways. This is truly one of the best movies of 2019.

* * * * out of * * * *

‘Hanna’ Features One of Saoirse Ronan’s Best Performances

Hanna movie poster

Joe Wright’s “Hanna” on the surface looks a bit like “Kick Ass” as, like that movie, it follows the exploits of a young girl who has been trained to be an elite assassin so she can avenge her mother’s murder. But “Hanna,” however, is more down to earth in how it treats its characters and the events which envelop them. Does this make it better than “Kick Ass?” No, just different.

On top of it being an action thriller with a bit of Luc Besson sleekness in its design, “Hanna” is also a fish out of water story as the title character discovers the real world in a way previously denied to her. Hanna has spent her entire life in the woods, living in a snow-covered cabin where her dad, Erik Heller (Eric Bana), has kept her safe. But now she is heading into a world completely unfamiliar to her. Hanna’s mission of assassination is also a journey of discovery, and this movie ends up coming with more surprises than I ever could have expected.

Playing Hanna is Saoirse Ronan who has gone from her Oscar-nominated turn in “Atonement” to an excellent career which includes unforgettable performances in films like “Brooklyn,” “Lady Bird” and “Mary Queen of Scots.” On paper, Hanna seems like a completely unrealistic character who could in no way exist in real life. But the beauty of Ronan’s performance is how she makes Hanna seem as real as any 16-year old girl even as the character leads a double life the average teenager does not. Seeing her come into contact with a civilization she has been sheltered from provides her with evidence of how not everything involves guns, bullets and violence. Of course, seeing her get her first kiss is frightening because she can flip back to assassin mode in a heartbeat if she gets the wrong impression.

Most of Hanna’s adventures come as a result of her befriending a British family on a road trip whose daughter Sophie (Jessica Barden) introduces her to teenage rebellion and some rather tacky fashion statements. Sophie’s parents, Sebastian (Jason Fleming) and Rachel (“The Ghost Writer’s” Olivia Williams), come to admire Hanna and help her as she moves on to a safer haven from the government forces who look to eliminate her.

Wright comes up with several invigorating action sequences which made me feel like I was watching a Jason Bourne movie. There’s not much in the way of shaky camerawork, but you can feel the bullets flying in the air as well as the punches and kicks which land on her opponents, crushing them as if she were simply swatting flies. This is the kind of action film I like to watch as it makes you feel things instead of letting you just sit back like you’re some passive observer.

In addition, Wright gets some amazing unbroken shots as we watch characters make their way through crowds of people while being followed by their cold-hearted adversaries. It makes me want to say “eat your heart out Brian DePalma” as the choreography involved in filming an unbroken sequence like this is anything but easy.

There are other great performances to be found in “Hanna” as well. One in particular is from Eric Bana who plays Hanna’s father Erik Heller. His character is also a spy on the run whose relationship with Hanna is far more complicated than at first glance. Watching Bana here reminded me of just how much he throws himself physically and emotionally into his characters. It’s exhausting watching him here as we get reminded of his strong work in “Black Hawk Down” as well as his comedic roles like the one he had in “Funny People.”

Then there’s the infinitely brilliant Cate Blanchett who never seems to suck in anything she does. While listening to her southern accent feels a bit odd at first, she is still sharp as ever as corrupt CIA agent Marissa Wiegler. Throughout Marissa is as obsessive in eliminating Hanna and Erik as she is in cleaning her teeth. Heck, watching her brushing even while her gums bleed profusely reminded me of just how long it’s been since I’ve gone to the dentist. Blanchett also has a brilliant moment where she pays a visit to a key witness, but her face suddenly shows a wealth of pain which is mysterious in its origin. I don’t know how she did it, but it’s the one shot in “Hanna” which stays with me the most as her ruthless character succumbs to a moment of inescapable vulnerability.

On top of it all, you get a brilliantly propulsive electronic film score from The Chemical Brothers. I immediately downloaded it off of iTunes as soon as I got back to my apartment. It’s actually the first time they have ever composed for a movie. Learning this made me want to say, “duh, what about ‘Fight Club?’” But wait, it was The Dust Brothers who composed the score for that 1999 classic. I guess techno music is more of a family affair than I realized. Either that or all these brothers look alike.

“Hanna” is not without its faults. The pace of the movie tends to slag in between the action scenes which, while offering us beautiful moments for the title character, drag the proceedings down more than they should. Also, it ends without resolving the fate of several characters, leaving us wondering what happened to them and if they came out of this story alive and in one piece. As a result, the ending feels a bit too abrupt.

Still, “Hanna” is a remarkably involving action thriller which doesn’t lay out everything for you right at the start. The story continues to unfold throughout, revealing each of its secrets along the way. What brings it altogether is the fantastic performance of Saoirse Ronan who at a young age showed a professionalism and sharp focus on character equal to many acting veterans. Seeing her portray someone as innocent as she is very deadly made it one of the most unforgettable performances I had seen in any movie from 2011.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

‘Mary Queen of Scots’ Features Unforgettable Performances From its Female Leads

Mary Queen of Scots poster

Many people, particularly on the movie’s IMDB page, have been bashing “Mary Queen of Scots” for failing to be historically accurate. But like many motion pictures which say or imply they are “based on a true story” or “inspired by true events,” this is another one which is not obliged to be restricted in its storytelling by mere facts. Indeed, this movie has been listed by the filmmakers as historical fiction which I am perfectly fine with as deals with two queens from centuries ago who had a respect for each other, but were also frightened by the other’s ability to wield power, and both had a lot of power at their disposal.

Based on the biography “Queen of Scots: The True Life of Mary Stuart” by John Guy, this movie starts off by showing Mary’s eventual fate, something we really didn’t need to see right away. Not that it spoils anything, but it is so brief to where its brief inclusion feels unnecessary.

From there, we see Mary Stuart (Saoirse Ronan), Queen of France, arriving in her native land of Scotland intent on reclaiming her throne there. But in this period of strife between Scotland and England, Queen Elizabeth I (Margot Robbie) holds powerful reign over both countries and is not in a hurry to surrender her power to anyone. Mary, however, sees herself more than a ruler by name, and she asserts herself in a way which threatens Elizabeth’s sovereignty and brings about a hot cauldron of rebellion and betrayal. Both women have a defiant appearance about them, but they will eventually find it difficult to keep their heads held high as treachery undoes their legacies in a way which will never be easy to repair.

“Mary Queen of Scots” gets off to a very slow start, and I found myself almost falling asleep. It is as though director Josie Rourke, the first woman ever appointed Artistic Director of the Donmar Warehouse, worked too hard to keep things from peaking at the story’s start. But once Ronan and Robbie make their presences known to us, this movie really hits its stride as both actresses inhabit their characters in ways both fearless and stunning as each proves they are more than ready to govern a country in a way Theresa May only thinks she can.

Ronan is exhilarating to watch throughout as she makes Mary Stuart into a bold ruler who will not suffer fools in the slightest, and seeing her stare down her most loyal servants, male and female, is truly a sight to behold. It’s like her eyes are spitting out daggers to where she has to say nothing in getting her point across. Just watch her scenes with Jack Lowden who plays Mary’s second husband, Lord Damley, who woos her in a way which would have earned this movie an NC-17 just a few years ago. But just as Lord Damley thinks he is the one in power, Mary emasculates him to where he is of little use other than impregnating her and giving an heir to the throne. Ronan stares Lowden down with what seems like little effort, and you have to give Lowden credit for playing a man who is so out of his depth in the monarchy.

Robbie came out of nowhere like a firebolt with her breakthrough performance in “The Wolf of Wall Street,” and she continues to wow us with one great performance after another in movies like “I, Tonya.” In this movie, she has an especially big challenge as Queen Elizabeth I is a historical character who has been played by many actresses over the years in various movies. We could spend our time comparing her performance to those given by Cate Blanchet and Dame Judi Dench among others, but n the end she more than makes this role her own. Even as she shows the power Elizabeth has all those around her, the actress is unafraid to show us this queen’s vulnerabilities which do not end with an almost deadly bout with smallpox. Seeing all those pox marks on her face succeeded in bringing back a lot of bad memories for me, and I have to give the makeup artists high praise as a result.

In real life, Mary and Elizabeth never met face to face, but the thought of them in a room together is highly intriguing. What would they talk about? Can’t they relate to one another in a way they cannot with others? The ideas abound, and what results here is a riveting scene between Ronan and Robbie as their characters strive to assert a power they see as being given to them without question. These two actresses do some of their best work yet here, and seeing them face off and hold their own results in one of the strongest pieces of acting I have seen in a 2018 movie.

Both Mary and Elizabeth respected and were frightened by one another. It’s tragic they could not become better friends as they were one and the same; female leaders who ruled in a time when the thought of a woman commanding such a power was something were too easily frightened by. The level of testosterone surrounding them did not stop them in their tracks, but it is clear how one queen fared better than the other.

“Mary Queen of Scots” thrives on the performances of Ronan and Robbie. The story is at times a bit hard to follow as the politics of the time are not always made clear, but things do improve as the movie goes on. Rourke does a strong job of bringing you right back to the year 1569, and there’s an excellent film score composed by Max Richter which heightens the visceral emotions on display. It’s also great to see actors like Guy Pearce and David Tennant sink so deep into their roles to where they almost completely unrecognizable. Of course, a lot of that is due to an abundance of hair they have on their bodies. What results is not quite a masterpiece, but a powerful motion picture which showcases the amazing talents of its two female leads even as takes liberties with history.

It’s sad to see things have not changed over time. Even now, female politicians still get done in by innuendos (a.k.a. fake news) about their records and accomplishments. But coming out of this movie, I’m fairly certain neither Mary or Elizabeth would have made the mistake of using a private email server in the same way Ivanka Trump did. Again, a lot of that is due to Ronan’s and Robbie’s powerful work.

* * * out of * * * *