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Posts Tagged ‘Saoirse Ronan’

I know one should judge a movie on its own quality, rather than that of its publicity material, but even so: something about the blurb promoting Greta Gerwig’s Little Women on the local multiplex website smells awfully whiffy to me. ‘Greta Gerwig has crafted a Little Women that draws on both the classic novel and the writings of Louisa May Alcott, and… is both timeless and timely.’ Well, that ‘timeless and timely’ line must be a good one, because I used something similar myself a couple of years ago, but – ‘crafted’? Honestly? I know this is a prestige movie gunning for gongs – it’s that time of year – but the implication seems to be that while most of those non-award-contender films were just slapped together out of spit and bubblegum, Gerwig emerged, exhausted, from a shed, having painstakingly ‘crafted’ her movie single-handed, possibly using a chisel.

Well, you’re not responsible for what people write about you, so I should probably move on from reviewing a website advertising the movie and consider the film itself. This is, of course, an adaptation of Louisa M Alcott’s classic and much-loved (not to mention much adapted) novel of the same name, a coming of age story set in the USA in the 19th century. It mostly concerns the siblings of one not-especially-well-off family living in Massachusetts: Meg, Amy, Little Jo and Hoss.

The novel was originally published in two parts (under different titles in the UK), but Gerwig (scripting as well as directing) has opted to tell the story out of chronological order. Thus it does take a little while for the shape of the story to become apparent, to say nothing of the difficulties one is presented with when trying to recap the plot.

So: the earlier part of the story is set during the American Civil War, with the father of the family absent and everyone else struggling to make ends meet. As noted, the March family are not exactly rolling in dough, and so it is important that at least one daughter makes a good marriage. But who is it to be? Eldest sibling Meg (Emma Watson), who seems to want to be an actress? Second daughter Jo (Saoirse Ronan), whose mind is always fixed upon her writing? What about Amy (Florence Pugh) an artistically gifted but temperamental and sometimes difficult girl? Who will catch the eye of the somewhat feckless but wealthy boy next door (Timothee Chalamet)? Anyway, none of the girls seems to impress the family’s stern old matriarch (Meryl Streep)… (I presume Streep is in the role that Lorne Greene used to play in the TV series, though I could be wrong.)

Well, this may be a beloved piece of literature, but it’s also one aimed at young American girls, so I must confess to being almost wholly unfamiliar with it. If I wasn’t the kind of person who goes to the cinema as a matter of habit, then there’s a good chance I probably wouldn’t have seen this at all – hang on, though, perhaps that’s not entirely true. This is a Greta Gerwig film, after all, and while I am just as happy to see a movie with her as by her, I have been following her career with interest for years now. The same is true of Florence Pugh.

I am happy to report that neither of them have proved my faith to be unfounded. I will admit to feeling a bit restless during the opening stages of the film, especially before the structure of the thing became properly apparent, but in the end it becomes a richly absorbing and impressive film: the staging is excellent, the ensemble playing is also very strong, and I did find the story genuinely touching in places. I get the sense that the film has been structured to retain the bits that people who have read the novel remember – there is some significant breakfast-donating, book-burning and hair-cutting, amongst other things – but Gerwig has structured the script with great intelligence and subtlety, creating resonances between scenes set years apart (presumably in different volumes of the book). The contrast between the warm, welcoming atmosphere of the girls’ childhood home and the somewhat bleaker tone of later years is also very well achieved.

With the father of the family absent for much of the film and Chalamet playing a slightly ambiguous character – charming, but also quite callow – this is, obviously, a female-dominated film. I sense that we are in for a lot of these over the next few weeks, for the great beast of capitalism has scented there is money to be made from the MeToo movement, gobbled it up, and is now in the process of selling it back to people in carefully packaged chunks. I really feared that Little Women would likewise end up as a piece of thudding agitprop – its own trailer is big on stressing that it is about how the March sisters are individuals with their own talents and dreams, rather than just wives and mothers in waiting – but once again Gerwig proves she is smarter than this.

There are certainly scenes which feel – how should one put this? – proto-feminist, or even feminist full-stop – the economic importance of marriage to women of this period is made quite clear, for instance. But these are not laboured and do seem to fit quite naturally within the narrative. There is also a moment where Emma Watson’s character is permitted to say that she does actually want to get married and have children, and that this is a perfectly valid life goal. Nevertheless, much of the film is about Jo’s desire to stay in control of her own life, which basically means remaining single. How, then, to contrive a happy climax to the movie, especially when the book does end with Jo getting spliced? The script manages to negotiate its way around this with some deftness and perhaps even a little impudence.

This is a solid and impressive movie, and very enjoyable. Ronan is customarily good, but she is at least matched by Pugh, who has a rather trickier role to contend with. None of the performances are what you would call weak, though. In the end it is Greta Gerwig’s script and direction which really make the movie what it is: charming and pleasant, but not without serious and moving moments, and perhaps even the odd life lesson. Little Women may do very well when the awards season properly gets going: I would not object if it did.

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I would like, if I may, to pose a small question: why is that we routinely refer to Mary Stuart, also known as Queen Mary I of Scotland, as Mary, Queen of Scots? We don’t adopt this slightly quaint style of nomenclature for anyone else – no references to Elizabeth, Queen of English people – at least, not that I’m aware of. I suppose it is simply that it is quite a euphonious title and it has stuck – it may also help to distinguish between Mary Stuart and her regal contemporary Mary Tudor (she of cocktail fame). And, of course, it is an equally good title for books and films about said royal personage, of which there have been many. Along comes another in the form of Josie Rourke’s (yes, you guessed it) Mary Queen of Scots.

The film is, of course, set back in the days when the dangers to the life of a regal personage extended far beyond going out for a drive without putting your seat-belt on: this is the middle of the sixteenth century, with religious war threatening to consume Great Britain. To be honest, the political situation this film deals with is extremely complex, and it only really makes a vague attempt at actually explaining it in detail. On the throne of England is Queen Elizabeth I (English, Protestant, played by someone from Australia), who in order to maintain her authority and independence has decided she cannot marry or produce a child. This is a matter of no small concern for the nobles of England (Protestant), as should the queen die without issue the throne will go to Mary I of Scotland (French, Catholic, played by someone from Ireland). (The two queens are actually cousins, but have never met.) It is decided that, in order to stop Mary from building up her power-base, her rule will be destabilised and she will be kept under control. Naturally, Mary herself has other ideas about this.

I’m only making the vaguest stab at explaining the premise of this movie, partly because it is, as I say, such a complex and subtle situation. There is also the fact that I suspect a large chunk of the sort of people who go to a film like Mary Queen of Scots are ones who… who can I put this without sounding too patronising?… don’t necessarily care that much about the story. They go to a lavish costume drama for the frocks and the language and the comforting sense of knowing more or less what’s going to happen (and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with this; it’s one of the pleasures of genre, after all). And it’s also a fact that anyone with a modest grounding in British history sort-of knows the rough outline of Mary I’s story anyway: came to power, got married and had a baby (thus threatening the Protestant settlement in England), various disputed shenanigans, one dead husband, forced to flee to England and Elizabeth’s protection, nearly twenty years under house arrest, charges (possibly trumped up) of stirring dissent against her cousin, chopping block. Along the way some guy called Rizzo meets a sticky end.

It is a rollicking, if slightly tragic story, and it would be great to see it properly done justice in a big movie, with the details filled in and the characters brought to some semblance of life. However, Mary Queen of Scots is not that movie. You can’t fault its ambition, but even though it mostly limits itself to the period between 1560 and 1567, it still struggles to accommodate all the details without feeling rather rushed and busy. The preponderance of dour bearded men standing around glowering darkly probably doesn’t help much.

Neither does the fact that the director seems to have other things on her mind than simply telling the history, or even just the story. ‘The perfect story for our time!’ declares the publicity for this movie, and I don’t think it’s just because it’s about the female leaders of England and Scotland not getting on. No, I suspect we are being invited to infer that this is a story revealing important universal truths about the treatment of powerful women. The film certainly seems to have a few agendas on the go – both the royal courts in the film seem improbably multi-ethnic (don’t set light to that torch just yet: I’m fully aware that in this period Britain was more diverse than has often been depicted, I’m only saying that the Countess of Shrewsbury wasn’t Chinese), while the implication seems to be that if Mary and Elizabeth had been left to sort it all about between themselves, without having to worry about men going on about the succession and the papacy and a woman’s place and so on, everything would have ended much more happily. (The film supports this by the contrivance of the kind of face-to-face meeting between the two women that there is no historical evidence for.) The men are cruel, or weak, or occasionally both; both queens are to some extent presented as victims. Well, it’s a coherent thesis, I suppose, I’m just not sure quite how well it serves or is served by this particular piece of history.

However, this is not to say that this is an entirely unrewarding movie. It is something of a truism to say that here in the UK we do this sort of thing rather well, and all the frocks and stretches of rolling countryside and surprising hairstyles are present and correct. The acting is also perfectly acceptable – although, in what’s undoubtedly the big showy title role, Saoirse Ronan doesn’t quite achieve full lift-off in the manner you might expect given her reputation. She is good, but not great. Rather surprisingly, the more impressive performance comes from Margot Robbie as the increasingly ravaged Elizabeth. She gets much less screen time and the film does not favour her to nearly the same extent, but she manages to bring something new to her portrayal of this most over-exposed of monarchs.

There is also a degree of fun to be had amongst the supporting cast, which is packed with solid character actors. Guy Pearce turns up as William Cecil, and Simon Russell Beale makes a cameo as (presumably) one of his own ancestors. David Tennant, who has been issued with a fake beard of such luxuriance it could probably conceal a herd of Highland cattle, is on barn-storming form as the zealous preacher John Knox.

So all in all this is still a reasonably substantial movie, it’s just that the various elements never quite cohere into something great. This story is probably just too involved to be brought to the screen without a judicious degree of editing taking place; trying to do the whole thing, while at the same time attempting to insert a contemporary metaphor, was probably never going to produce something entirely satisfactory. Some very good individual elements, though.

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In my line of work, you may occasionally find yourself having to teach opposites, which is not always as straightforward as you might think. The opposite of ‘long’ is easy; it’s ‘short’. The opposite of ‘difficult’ – well, that’s easy, too. But what about ‘light’? Is it ‘dark’ or ‘heavy’? Or is it both? What about ‘strong’?

Long-term readers may recall my occasional amusement at some of the prefatory guidance provided by the British censor on their certifications, and it seems I am not alone in this. ‘Contains strong sex and sexual content’ ran the blurb ahead of Dominic Cooke’s On Chesil Beach, which I saw a matinee showing of at Oxford’s best-mannered cinema. The audience there looked so respectable and well-brought-up I wouldn’t have been at all surprised if some of them had actually read Ian McEwan’s novella, upon which it is based. Nevertheless, someone at the back said, just a bit too loudly, ‘Strong sex? As opposed to what, weak sex?’

Well, many a true word spoken in attempted jest, for weak sex is in a sense what On Chesil Beach is about, not that it initially shows much sign of this. Perhaps this is really the point. The film opens in 1962, with the arrival on the eponymous UNESCO world heritage site of a young couple, Edward (Billy Howle) and Florence (Saoirse Ronan). They are newlyweds, and both clearly nervous, aware of the significance of their first night together as a married couple, and – outwardly at least – keen to discharge their responsibilities to each other.

Through an extended series of flashbacks, the film sketches in their backgrounds and history – Florence is a musician, from quite a posh background: her mother and father are ferociously Tory and perhaps incline somewhat towards a tough parenting style. Edward, a historian, is from a slightly more humble background, his life somewhat defined by the fact his mother has been prone to rather eccentric behaviour since she was hit in the head by a train. They are clearly utterly in love with one another.

However, this being 1962, with the permissive society still to really get going, Edward and Florence really don’t have much idea about what comes next. From the beginning one is instantly struck by the sense that these are two people playing roles, going through the motions simply because they believe it is what expected of them. It is sort of funny, sort of sad; you really do feel for them. But then it becomes simply rather excruciating to watch two people, at considerable length and in considerable detail, fail to have sex, especially because you can tell this is all they really want to do, and this failure is clearly going to have consequences.

On Chesil Beach starts off by looking like the kind of well-heeled period literary adaptation which we produce on a fairly regular basis here in the UK – the cinematography is beautiful, the recreation of Oxford around 1960 is superbly done. This is initially presented as a kind of halcyon era – there is warm beer and cricket matches, people wandering about on Christchurch Meadow, catching steam trains (when not being hit in the head by them), and so on. And there is the kind of very strong cast you would expect for this kind of film. Saoirse Ronan is the big draw, obviously, but she is matched step for step by Billy Howle, and there is an excellent supporting cast – principally, Anne-Marie Duff, Adrian Scarborough, Emily Watson and Samuel West.

It initially seems like this is to be a forensic, not unsympathetic depiction of the mores of the period, which seems like an unimaginably distant and different one: Florence has no idea who Chuck Berry is, but upon hearing one of his songs on the radio decides it sounds ‘merry’. The class tension between Edward and Florence’s parents, in particular, is also sharply drawn. There are moments of comedy as well as drama, with the two subtly shading into one another – West’s performance as Florence’s absurdly driven father would certainly qualify as a brilliant comic miniature, were it not for the fact that there are definite hints of genuine darkness in his history.

And then – well, it is difficult to say much without spoiling what seems to me to be one of the best films of the year so far. Things do not go according to plan, someone quite possibly overreacts, decisions are made that cannot be unmade. There is a sense in which the film is obviously suggesting that this is all the result of the kind of repressed society where young people are forced to educate themselves in matters amatory, but it never feels like it is pointing a finger or apportioning blame. Everyone is shaped by their background, after all, whether they decide to adopt the role expected of them or rebel against it; no-one is really wholly self-made. And yet the film’s sense of sadness is overwhelming as it progresses; what looks like it may simply be another one of those somewhat bleak films about British people being bad in bed ultimately turns into a crushingly tragic story, made all the more so because there is so little to suggest this as the film begins.

This is a product of the BBC’s film division, and many people might say that one of the distinguishing features of a BBC movie is the fact that it seems very much at home on the small screen – that BBC Films productions are frequently just a bit too genteel and not really cinematic enough to fully satisfy. Well, I would say this one is a bit different – most obviously, it has two marvellous performances from Ronan and Howle, both of whom appear to be carved from solid star quality, but Cooke’s direction has a style and ambition about it which is very much at home on the big screen. The creation of a nostalgic picture-postcard world is finely achieved, as is the moment where our departure from it is signalled by the sudden intrusion into the soundtrack of the growling opening riff from T-Rex’s 20th Century Boy, signalling a jump forward in time of many years. There is also something beautifully simple and symbolic about the closing shot of the film, the camera constantly pulling back to keep the two characters involved at the edges of the screen as they move inexorably away from each other.

As I say, On Chesil Beach is hardly a cheery film, but it is one of the highest quality on pretty much every level. I had heard good things about it, but I did not expect it to move me so profoundly in the way it did. Not the kind of entertainment you walk home from whistling, but there’s a reason why people listen to sad songs, too – this is a deeply humane and beautifully-made film, well worth watching.

 

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I do find myself to be somewhat inclined towards a very unbecoming smugness: it is a dreadful flaw in my character, one that I do contend with as the years go by. Is it one of those truisms that a person’s predisposition towards being smug increases in inverse proportion to their actual justification for it? I don’t know: but it is nice, sort of, to occasionally feel pleased with yourself and know you have a very good reason for this.

Or at a least a half-decent reason. Unexpected delights are pretty rare when it comes to the Academy Awards (unexpected anythings are unusual in Oscars territory), but the nomination of Greta Gerwig for best director and best screenplay certainly qualifies. Gerwig has been on my own personal one-to-watch list for years now – mainly as an actress, but given she co-wrote two of the films she has starred in, her move into – how best to put it? – full-blown auteuseship is only the next logical step.

The film in question is Lady Bird, and it is not a political biography, nor a badly punctuated tale of children’s books or obscure superheroines. Saoirse Ronan plays the title role of Christine McPherson, a seventeen-year-old girl growing up somewhat restlessly in Sacramento, back in 2002. Not caring much for her given name, she has decided she wants to be known as ‘Lady Bird’, just one of many things which her mother Marion (Laurie Metcalfe) finds rather exasperating. (Her father (Tracy Letts) is much more laid back about everything.)

The family is just about surviving, although times are tough, and Lady Bird’s determination to apply to (expensive) colleges on the east coast is another cause of friction between her and her mother – not that these are ever in short supply, it would seem: money, her behaviour around the house, her schoolwork, her general attitude…

Over the course of a year, the film follows Lady Bird as she embarks upon a brief theatrical career, launches into a number of possibly unwise romances, attempts to become one of the cool kids at school, and so on. Will she ever reach some kind of understanding with her mother? Is her life ever going to be less sucky and embarrassing?

Well, everyone goes through the same milestone moments in their life, and for some of us, another one has just arrived: this is the first film I’m aware of which treats the early years of the 21st century as the subject of genuine nostalgia. Greta Gerwig has said that Lady Bird is not specifically an autobiographical story, but it’s hard not to see how her own experiences haven’t informed this story, considering that she herself was graduating a Catholic high school in Sacramento at just about the same time this film is set. The noughties nostalgia is handled with a light touch, anyway – it’s certainly not the sine qua non of the movie.

I have seen criticism of Lady Bird suggesting this is just another by-the-numbers high school coming of age movie, with nothing new to offer an audience – well, I’m not sure how it compares to a lot of high school coming of age movies, as this is not a genre of which I regularly partake, but surely the point of this kind of movie is that it deals with universal rites of passage, those elements of growing up which are common to nearly everyone. Part of the charm of this genre is recognising things from one’s own experience, and I have to say I did find Lady Bird to be an extremely endearing film, regardless of how far divorced it is from my own experiences.

The film captures the essence of life as a teenager with great accuracy and skill – the soaring ups, the crushing downs, the unexpected pleasures and disappointments, the little moments of transition – and, particularly, the unintentional self-centred cruelty of which young people are particularly capable, along with their generosity and other virtues. You completely understand why Marion finds her daughter to be such a pain in the neck, yet at the same time Lady Bird never becomes actually unsympathetic.

For a film like this to focus primarily on the mother-daughter relationship is obviously kind of unusual, and this is another thing to make the film distinctive and (in its own subtle way) very much a film of our time. To this we can add a further innovation – if the film has an analogue from previous generations, it might well be Howard Deutsch’s 1986 movie Pretty in Pink, which likewise dealt with themes of popularity, class, and coming of each. However, the key difference here is that that Lady Bird’s realisation of herself as a person does not primarily revolve around getting a great boyfriend, which is the focus of Deutsch’s film. Instead, relationships with family and friends are presented as being of equal significance and value, especially that with her best friend Julie (Beanie Feldstein). It’s probably overstating things to say that this alone marks the film out as one about the female experience which has actually been written and directed by a woman, but it still seems to me to be significant.

Saoirse Ronan has been building a formidable reputation as a young actor of considerable ability for many years now – in a further sign of sensible career management, she appears to have gotten all the dodgy fantasy blockbusters out of the way already – and Lady Bird should do nothing but add to this, as she is effortlessly convincing when playing someone still in their teens. She is well supported by the rest of the cast, especially Metcalfe and Letts – Gerwig shows every sign of having cast the film with enormous shrewdness, considering it features two young actors (Lucas Hedges and Timothee Chalamet) who have appeared in other highly-acclaimed films recently.

As I say, Lady Bird feels very much like a film of the current moment, for all that it has a recent-past setting. For all that, it does not feel like an especially angry or openly political one, as throughout it is warm, charming, and often extremely funny. It would be great for such a positive and tender film to do really well at the Academy Awards this year; we can only hope the voters there are as won over as everyone else has been.

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Ah, what a great, iconic tale: victims of an oppressive, totalitarian regime, a motley band of dissidents and criminals escape from imprisonment in a bleak wasteland and set out to strike a blow for individual freedom. Fantastic material for a film there, especially if you’re multi-Award nominated film-maker Peter Weir. Unfortunately, the film rights for Blake’s 7 are already under option and so Weir has been obliged to search elsewhere for material for his new film, which he has nevertheless decided to call The Way Back.

(What an odd way to start a review, you may be thinking: it isn’t even that good a joke. Well, you may be right, but what the hell – some people may appreciate it. Let me know if you’re one of them!)

Anyway, this is an epic drama based on a supposedly true story (the events apparently happened, it’s just that nobody seems to be quite sure who they actually happened to). Jim Sturgess plays Janusz, a young Pole banished to the Siberian gulag at the height of the Second World War. There he befriends a mixed bag of other prisoners, mostly other political dissidents, and together they decide to make a break for freedom – no small thing, given the lethal hostility of the Siberian wilderness and the immense distances separating them from safety.

Amongst Janusz’s new companions are a grizzled American (Ed Harris) and a brutal Russian criminal (Colin Farrell), while in the course of their journey southward they meet another young Polish refugee, Irina (Saoirse Ronan). Their initial plan to follow the shore of Lake Baikal and cross the border into Mongolia runs into trouble and it becomes clear their only hope of freedom is to try to cross the Gobi desert and the Himalayas, with India as their ultimate goal.

Given the scope of the story and Weir’s track record when it comes to epic, yet engrossing dramas, I went to see The Way Back with high expectations. And it scores in a number of departments – the scenery and photography throughout is stunning, and the performances are honest and convincing.

However, while the scope of the story is stunning, the actual detail of it isn’t that involving. Fatally, some of the members of the escaping group remain rather anonymous until the journey is well underway, and they’re not that well delineated even then. Not a huge amount happens, either in terms of the group’s internal interactions or the things they encounter on the way. (For some reason, the actual escape itself takes place off-screen.) The film devolves into the characters wandering along, worrying about getting lost and finding things to eat and drink, with only the landscape going through any significant change.

None of the pictures from the film were that interesting or funny, so here's a photo of Blake's 7 instead. Hurrah!

That said, the movie isn’t cliched and I suspect most people will be surprised at the identities of the characters who fall by the wayside in the course of the trek. It does, however, jump through some startling narrative hoops when it comes to language – initially it’s all in subtitled Russian (fine by me, as it allowed me to check in on the deterioration of my rooski yazik), but abruptly switches to accented English a few minutes in. Fair enough, thought your reviewer, it’s a translation convention… but no! It’s made clear that for some reason the Poles and Russians and other eastern Europeans are all choosing to speak in English throughout most of their journey, which is considerate of them and fortunate for Harris’s character (and the audience). I’m being disingenuous, of course – there are very sound commercial reasons why this film isn’t in a foreign language. Personally I don’t worry that much about verisimilitude, though – but then again I’m not the National Geographic people, who produced this film…

I suspect that may be a bit of a metaphor for the problems with The Way Back – it frets a bit too much about mundane details and in doing so forgets about being appropriately sweeping and epic and moving. This is by no means a bad film, but I didn’t emerge particularly thrilled or uplifted or caring about the characters (though I did emerge with a few ideas for possible future holiday destinations). Not inappropriately given the subject matter, The Way Back is really a bit of a plodder.

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