Little Women 2019 *****

greta-gerwig-little-womenGreta Gerwig is a talented woman in a field where women are rarely listened to or valued, but she’s earned her place at the front rank of Hollywood creatives. Louisa May Alcott’s venerable property is one which Sony have been keen to develop for a while, and with Gerwig as writer/director, the resulting rich slice of period drama is something of a triumph for all concerned. For Gerwig, it proves beyond any doubt that her directorial debut, Lady Bird, was no fluke; for Amy Pascal and Sony, it’s a strong return on their faith in a fresh and radical female director, handling a big-name cast and a lush studio production. And for audiences, it’s a chance to return to a classic, often filmed text, and find something new and exciting through the eyes of a genuine auteur.

The bildungsroman is an ideal target for a 2019 do-over; today’s youth chronicle their coming of age in lugubrious detail, so it’s something of a breath of fresh air to find Alcott’s character brought to life with such brief but incisive strokes. Gerwig puts Jo (Saoirse Ronan) and her development centre-stage, opening with the author nervously awaiting the opinion of a publisher of her early work. His understanding, that a story about a woman must end with her either married, or dead, is one that Jo wants to question, but she’s also savvy and prepared to negotiate, on art, on commerce, on all terms. The question is, how did she get so smart?

From here, the narrative fractures, as we travel back seven years to see the formative experiences which have inspired Jo’s work, namely her sisters Margaret (Emma Watson), Amy (Florence Pugh) and Elizabeth (Eliza Scanlen), and also remain in the present to get acquainted with how things work out for the sisters. There is an eccentric aunt (Meryl Streep, giving it some Maggie Smith in the dowager stakes), and a handsome suitor Laurie (the more-than-personable Timothy Chalamet), while the stern but loving hand of mother Marmee (Laura Dern) is there to steady the ship when the girls’ youthful enthusiasm threatens to put things out of kilter. The way the narrative jumps backwards and forwards in time may dissuade those have come just for the classic text and chocolate-box visuals, but it revitalises the narrative in a satisfying way, and makes familiar events more surprising as they play out. As a director, Gerwig plays down the potential for sentiment, while retaining the caustic wit of her script work on Lady Bird and Frances Ha; these Little Women feel like real people, with Ronan’s sparring with Pugh a particular highlight.

Little Women is an unexpected delight, a period film that feels relevant, a woman’s picture that should have a universal appeal. It’s easy to cheer Jo as she rises above her difficulties, and Gerwig is always firmly plugged into her heroine’s psyche. The ending, while clever, is unashamedly romantic; Gerwig’s sumptuous film shows a modern audience that feminism and romance can fit together nicely.

Midsommar 2019 ***

‘Get on with it’ would be a more appropriate title for Ari Aster’s glacially slow horror film, a follow up to Hereditary that repeats many of the same tropes but with a remarkable drop-off in terms of effect. Midsommar went from much anticipated to immediately forgotten after a big hype and subsequent minimal performance; it’s a strange misfire which gains points for imagination and atmosphere, but is crippled by a lack of plot and character development.

A commendably brief set up establishes the troubled family history of Dani (Florence Pugh); her sister killed herself, taking her parents with her. While Dani waits for a response to frenzied phone-calls, her boyfriend Christian (Jack Reynor) is meeting his bros and planning a holiday in Sweden. When Dani comes along, clearly in a state of mourning, it’s obvious that if the copious drugs consumed won’t dislodge something from her psyche, then something will have to give in the fragile relationship she has with Christian.

After a brief interlude with hallucinogens, the group find themselves in a bizarre and remote commune where the apparent niceness and friendly overtures of the locals hide a dark secret. Some kind of pagan worship is going on, and as with The Wicker Man, if you have to ask who is getting sacrificed, then the answer is probably ‘you’. Despite the considerable running time, there’s considerably more culture clash involved in the Wicker Man trope, which gets into details about how and why these outdated customs are adhered to. Aster, swimming in the other direction, depicts the rituals in great length without much in the way of explanation; the result is as dull to watch as a royal wedding in some arcane culture.

Crucially, Aster’s characters lack agency even before they’re given drugs which render them immobile; escape attempts are offscreen and unclear, while the striking setting becomes boring when it becomes apparent that the entire story is guessable from the trailer. The cast don’t have enough material to establish the group beyond rote slasher movie archetypes, and even the sense of dread so powerful in Hereditary eventually fades here as events spiral slowly towards a non-existent punchline.

If Aster goes on to less obviously undercooked projects, Midsommer may gain in resonance, but on it’s own, it’s a weak story killed by over-confidence. The visuals are striking, and the whole package is tempting, but ultimately Midsommer feels like Hostel played at half-speed, minus the gore, humour or excitement.