“Little Women” ( 2019)

Louisa May Alcott’s 1868 novel “Little Women” has a disparaging title for 21st century women. Granted the absent Marsh father, a Civil War chaplain, calls his four young daughters “little women” instead of “girls”; but, director Greta Gerwig does all she can to show us mature women. I miss not seeing children huddled around their mother, Marmee, yet Gerwig has given filmgoers something more: a quartet of passionate, rational women with discernment and heart to be loved again.

The film begins with Tracy Letts’ feet on his New York publisher’s desk and a fat cigar in his mouth. He orders Jo Marsh (Saoirse Ronan) to sit before he tells her that he will accept her manuscript with alterations. He espouses that “morals don’t sell”. Letts has a gleam in his eye as he pontificates on spicing her story up and making certain that her heroine either marries or dies. Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s “ The Vindication Of Women” (1798) comes to mind eighty years earlier. Director and screenwriter Greta Gerwig reminds women that we had not come much further in 1865.

“Little Women” (2019) jumps back and forth in time and in place. The screen tells us it is seven years earlier and we are in Concord, Massachusetts. Here we are reintroduced to the four Marsh girls and their mother, Marmee ( Laura Dern). Meg, the eldest is the most conventional. Emma Watson does little to draw out her character. Saoirse Ronan is stunning as Jo, as is Florence Pugh as the youngest, Amy. Pugh’s Amy is, in fact, is my favorite. Her deep voice and psychological insight made her wiser than her years. Timothee C. did not seem her match. Amy, also, held her own in the scenes with Meryl Streep ( Auntie Marsh). Amy comes to life not as a selfish and jealous baby sister of Jo, but as an brutally honest and insightful woman. Beth (Eliza Scanlen) looked too healthy for death, but the swelling music of composer and conductor Alexandre Desplat helps. The windy beach scene with Jo is grand. Beth tells her sister that she is not afraid of death. For Beth, death is like the tide going out very slowly.

The cinematography and score are lush. The film’s start slow. Too many long scenes packed with kite-flying, ice-skating, play-acting, piano playing, and painting. I noticed lots of fake-joy on female faces in Christmas scenes. And Jo’s shoulder-thrusting walk got on my nerves. The book binding and gold-gilt embossing of Jo’s first book is more evocative and one of my favorite scenes. Chris Cooper’s Mr. Lawrence stood out in the few male roles, as did Tracy Letts. Timothee Chalamet’s Laurie was too foppish for me. All in all,Greta Gerwig’s production has received more positive press than the final production warrants. A nice walk down memory lane.

“Lady Macbeth”

Wow! What campy fun. But, also, what a treatise on class and all its indignities. See “Lady Macbeth” if titilating sex, narcissistic murder, and innovative feline punctuation marks fuel your curiosity.

Exquisite acting and the debut of the much touted Florence Pugh are other reasons not to miss this disturbing tale retold. There is no “hurly-burly” here except in the master-bedroom. Our source material not so much Shakespeare as the Russian novella, “Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk District”. This is an 1865 work by Nikolai Leskov. Other renditions on our villainous Katharine have been the 1962 film ” Siberian Lady Macbeth”, and the 1932 opera by Shostakovich. There is “no candlelight ballet of blood flow”, but there is lots of “to bed to bed”!

William Oldroyd as director is remarkable. The stifling control is palpable in the camera shots, held cage-like. Once the captured Katherine can open the door, the moors and the wild wind rustle her appetites. The film’s trailers are correct in ascribing a merger of Alfred Hitchcock and ” Wuthering Heights” to the film.

Screenwriter Alice Birch gives tyrannical power to the master of the house, Boris Lester ( Christopher Fairbank ) and to his son Alexander (Paul Hilton). Katherine has been sold at 17 by her father with a parcel of land. Her dispassioned husband is not interested in consummating the match. He already has a son who he has bequeathed his inheritance. Old Boris does not live long enough to be surprised. His explosive:” Resume your duties with more rigor, Madame!” are followed, but ironically with the stable boy. The cocksure Sebastian is even out of his league here. As stable boy,he will lose his life and that of their unborn child.

Katherine raises her chin like a shield as she is ignored, degraded and tyrannically told to stay inside. She has Anna, the housemaid, played beautifully by Naomi Ackie, forage for poison mushrooms. Anna, who also is attracted to the rough, take charge passion of Cosmo turns mute in her guilt. A conscience seems only to be possessed by the underclasses.

Enjoy Anna’s smoldering jealousy as she looks through the bedroom keyhole to keep a close eye on her competition. Likewise, Katherine’s cheeky come-backs to her father-in-law’s question, ” Where is your husband?” are smart. ” Where you put him!” rings in fury. He throws a plate at her and makes Anna crawl on the floor.

Katherine has learned from the Lester men. Her didactic “face the wall” and “stop smiling”, model her own past treatment. Now, with the masters gone, privilege wins out. Being “on the top of the heep” is what me lady wishes. Her soul long decomposed, she rises on its gaseous fumes.

Ari Wegner, the cinematographer, not only does a great job of capturing cat-catching poses:They are used as metaphors, asides, ironies, and just plain fun. Wide sweeps of heathered moors and wind-swept hair have us breathing a freedom that our murderer will sadly use only to her earthly benefit.

The young six-year-old Teddy’s demise is the most horiffic I have seen on camera. If you were making excuses for Katherine’s other sins, this scene yanks you back to my lady as devil.

Much else is gruesome, but not to the point of this
shock: poor Teddy and his clueless grandmother Grace, lover Sebastian ( Cosmo Jarvis), maid Anna ~ all betrayed or done in. But husband, his horse, and father-in-law came first. ” Does evil breed evil?”, seems to be the theme here. There is more than beautiful camera symmetry to this film. “How can someone so hot-blooded be so cold-blooded?”, may be the ultimate question. Pure malevolence in 1865 Northumberland is a brazen treat.