Marriage Story 2019 ****

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It’s always concerning when people are queuing up to tell you how good a movie is; despite the roar of the critics, a 137 minute analysis of a marriage breakdown really does need some pull quotes to sell it. ‘See the star of Avengers in a custody dispute with the star of Star Wars’ doesn’t sound like it’ll put bums on seats, but then again, this is a Netflix production, so the bums don’t have to be enticed from their sofas. Noah Baumbach’s semi-autobiographical film has genuine star power in the form of Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver as functional click-bait, and although it’s a the kind of self-conscious art movie that uses to pack indie cinemas, it should find quite a few takers with a contentious he-said/she-said narrative that engages and chills at the same time.

Charlie (Adam Driver) is a NYC theatre director, Nicole (Johansson) is his wife, and they have a son to take care of. Their decade-long relationship seems to be fizzling out; she’s got work in LA that expands and contracts, he’s locked into the creative lottery of Broadway and off-Broadway. Both of them get to sing a song to illustrate their theatrical backgrounds, although his rendition of Stephen Sondheim’s Being Alive is far superior to her family pastiche. Indeed, Marriage Story isn’t as balanced as has been suggested; like Robert Benton’s Kramer vs Kramer, this is divorce from a man’s POV, with Nicole’s hard-nosed career aspirations making her an antagonist to Charlie’s soft-headed sentiment.

It soon becomes obvious that Charlie’s hang-dog charms have led him to infidelity, although Baumbach is more interested in the cold aftermath than the passion, and Nicole’s coldness is not without justification. But the weight of sympathetic set-pieces falls heavily in Charlie’s favour; there’s a sensational late scene involving a knife that’s so fiercely, blackly comic that it could only have come from real experience, and draws gasps and groans of empathy.

Marriage Story promises lots of shouting and angst, but the grounded, realistic expansion of Charlie and Nicole’s feud to include lawyers, families and passing strangers provides opportunities for weapons-grade acting from Driver and Johansson, neither of whom have bettered the performances they give here. Driver nails Charlie’s addiction to lost causes, and suggests a deep, lonely soul desperate to fulfil the coveted role of father. Johansson softens the bitter edge of Nicole’s desire for escape and reveals something more tender; her desire to be the best mother she can necessitates taking care of herself, and Nicole comes across far more genuine that Meryl Streep did in Kramer.

Perhaps 137 minutes is a run-time which lacks discipline, but there are long, compelling stretches of old-school drama here. And as a bonus, there’s a wealth of star-studded turns here, all highly enjoyable, from Ray Liotta and Laura Dern as expensive lawyers, to Alan Alda as a not so expensive lawyer. Marriage Story is the most mature work from Baumbach so far, a complex view of good people who find that goodness isn’t enough to immunise them against the insidious viruses of past-vanity and domestic over-reach. It’s a parable for our time; the blue skies and clear vistas of LA are contrasted with the cold and dirty feelings of the human heart, and there’s no winners here other than the audience, who should marvel at the strength of self-analysis contained in Marriage Story for years to come.

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.

JT LeRoy 2018 ****

JT_LEROY_ONE_SHEET-1There’s plenty of films about hoaxes; the nature of a disguise works well in cinema. Savannah Knoop was the young girl who appeared in public as the reclusive author of three autobiographical works; as with other hoaxes, it did not end well, and she published a memoir explaining what she did and why. That memoir is now the subject of a sophisticated film by writer/director Justin Kelly, who manages to avoid any tabloid trashiness, yet still manages to evoke the personal, private horror of a private arrangement that explodes in the public eye. Sister of Geoff (Jim Strugess), Savannah (Kristen Stewart) arrives in San Francisco only to fall under the spell of his girlfriend Laura (Laura Dern). Laura has had literary success as JT Leroy, but needs someone to attend book-signings and literary events. With a blond wig and glasses, Savannah fits the bill, but once an actress (Diane Kruger) is wowed by Laura’s phone-sex skills, a mooted movie-version of LeRoy’s second book threatens to bring a spotlight that shines too brightly for the conspirators to hide from. That Kruger’s character Eva iseemsbased on Asia Argento (whose LeRoy adaptation The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things premiered at Cannes) adds the further layer of notoriety; if nothing else, Kelly’s film illustrates William Goldman’s film industry maxim that nobody knows anything. Eva is presented in a very negative way, offering sex in return for the rights to the book, and then moving onto another relationship once they are secured.’ I made this film for you,’ Eva shrieks, while both Laura and Savannah come out of Kelly’s film with some bonds of friendship intact. Most films about the media have a tin ear; JT LeRoy feels painfully real, not least because Stewart is a great, vulnerable lead, but also because Dern oozes self-assuredness, not least when she’s playing Speedy, an invented personal manager and fixer for LeRoy whose strangulated English accent and colourful wig brings to mind perennial British media non-entity Janet Street Porter.

JT LeRoy is in UK  Cinemas and Digital from 16th August 2019.