A Portuguesa is an extraordinary film in many ways. It is very beautiful and it’s beautifully made with great intelligence. There is so much fascinating cinema out there but so often we find ourselves missing opportunities to see it and instead we allow ourselves to be led towards the mainstream. I have to confess that Portuguese cinema has long been overlooked in my cinema viewing and particularly the work of the great art film directors from that country. It’s not a surprise then that I have not seen anything by Rita Azevedo Gomes before, despite the fact that this is is her ninth film and that her first was made thirty years ago. Although successful at various festivals, Ms Gomes has not so far broken through into wider international recognition. Now, as a result of MUBI’s streaming service, more cinephiles will have a chance to ‘discover’ her.
A Portuguesa is a literary adaptation of a novella by the Austrian writer Robert Musil (1880-1942) adapted by the director. It’s the second story from the collection Three Women (1924). The story is set in the 16th century in Northern Italy where a German nobleman, von Ketten (Marcello Urgeghe), is engaged in military action against the Bishopric of Trent in the Dolomites. Von Ketten has brought his young Portuguese wife (Clara Riedenstein – very good) to a remote area where he has commandeered a small ‘castle’ on a hill at the end of a year-long honeymoon journey. Having established her in the castle von Ketten goes off to war, managing to make his wife pregnant twice in the little time he spends in the castle over the next 11 years. The first part of the narrative is mainly concerned with the ‘Portuguese woman’ herself (I don’t think she is actually named at any point) and how she finds a way to live in this isolated place and the second part deals with von Ketten’s return and what it means for the couple. But to write the outline in this way probably suggests a conventional narrative which this certainly isn’t. This is an art film in terms of both the sounds and images presented and in its narrative structure and (lack of) explicit narration.
The beauty of the film lies in its staging and cinematography. Gomes searched carefully to find suitable locations in Portugal to stand in for Northern Italy. At one point when the mist appears in the hills, the protagonist mentions Sintra, but I think many of the scenes were shot in Northern Portugal. The approach seems to have been to present moments/scenes from the protagonist’s life in the form of tableaux. The camera often remains static but with significant movement within the frame, especially in the many scenes played out in long shot. In an interview Gomes tells us that she and the veteran cinematographer Acácio de Almeida (born 1938) spent a long time with a digital camera attempting to find ways to produce the exact colour tones that the director required. On my computer screen and TV set, what they discovered took my breath away, especially in the early scene when the noble couple first approach the castle with their retinue. This was accompanied by choral singing which I assumed was meant to be diegetic, though I couldn’t see anyone singing. The music in the rest of the film is more clearly diegetic though. These early scenes are presented in a realist style with attention to details in costume, hairstyles etc. but when characters speak in tableaux, they declaim almost as if on stage. This sense of ‘realist artificiality’ is enhanced by a deliberate use of lighting in compositions, especially inside the castle, which refer directly to the Flemish school of painting. The other element, which also opens the film pre the title, is a form of one-person Greek chorus performed by Ingrid Caven (another veteran at 80, an actor associated with the work of her ex-husband Rainer Werner Fassbinder). She recites/sings the medieval poem ‘Unter der Linden’ while posing in the empty castle grounds in a simple, long black gown which in its style suggests ‘modernity’. Ms Caven will appear at various points in the narrative, sometimes alone, sometimes weaving through the tableau.
This use of classical references occurs throughout the film and the combination of these references and the limited narrative information about the long war makes the film difficult to follow as a linear narrative even if you know the artistic references and/or the history of the Bishopric of Trent (modern Trentino) – which I don’t. The narrative is intended, I presume to refer in some way to the Council of Trent, the many years of wrangling in the Roman Catholic Church over how to respond to the Protestant Reformation. The Portuguese woman appears to be an atheist. The original novella seems to be (by reviewers’ comments) part of a collection of love stories. The film doesn’t come across to me as a romance or a particularly erotic story, though the elements are all there to make it so. I think, instead, I found it an interesting narrative about gender roles, feudal society and other historical/cultural analyses. The most interesting of these for me was the presentation of a vital, talented young woman coming to terms, or not, with her situation. As part of this she has strong relationships with the women she has brought with her from Portugal, especially her closest servant-companion played by Rita Durão (who has been a leading player in earlier films by Gomes and also for other women directors). At one point there is mention of “Moorish slave girls” by the the Portuguese Woman but I couldn’t see any signifiers of ‘Moorish’ or indeed of ‘slaves’ – the younger women especially seem well treated by a ‘mistress’ who clearly appreciates them. It’s worth remembering at this point that Portugal was the first European country to establish a global empire from the late 15th century onwards.
The noblewoman is frustrated by her confinement but not in an anachronistic way. We recognise what her problems and her wishes are. The issues for her husband are also rooted in their time but are more difficult to fully comprehend. I assume that we are meant to see his commitment to war as something that stands in the way of a deeper and more sustained relationship with his partner and that his attachment to hunting is necessary to confirm his virility.
A Portuguesa is a long film (135 minutes) and this is for me its major flaw. It is slow-paced and after a time I found that the beauty of scenes began to be overtaken by my wish for more narrative information (perhaps this was because I missed the references I might be expected to follow up?). Even so, I found the film intriguing and aesthetically pleasing. I will watch any of the director’s other films that night appear. The film is on MUBI’s regular rolling programme for the next three weeks. I don’t know if it will then be accessible from the library. Here’s the original Portuguese trailer, French and German as well as Portuguese is spoken in the film.
The new TV drama serial A Suitable Boy, based on the novel by Vikram Seth begins on Sunday 26 July on BBC1. The novel was widely praised when it was published in 1993 and the serial is directed by Mira Nair whose track record as a diaspora director of both South Asian and British/American films is equally well-respected. Promotion of the serial as the first major production by the BBC to feature an all non-white cast suggests a real sense of meeting an audience demand for more stories by and about people of colour, preferably also made by people of colour. Why then has the Radio Times published a comment piece by Tufayel Ahmed questioning the production’s credentials? The answer is simply that Andrew Davies was commissioned to adapt the novel. Davies is the veteran adapter who gained a reputation (which he tended to promote himself) as a very successful adapter of literary classics who could ‘sex up’ earlier fictions for a contemporary popular TV audience. Tufayel Ahmed admits that he hasn’t seen the serial and he doesn’t mention the Davies reputation for sexing up stories. He is concerned only that Davies is not a person of colour and specifically not from a South Asian background. Because of this he feels that this revelation “takes a little bit of sheen off this groundbreaking project”.
I’m not going to argue against the force of what Tufayel Ahmed says. He goes on to make several good points about the growing challenge to broadcasters to employ more writers from diverse backgrounds and I urge you to read the piece. I’m also not necessarily a fan of Andrew Davies, though I respect his undoubted skills. What interests me are a number of questions about adaptation and television drama more generally. The first point is that this will be a drama serial, not a ‘series’. The serial format is very familiar, especially on UK TV, used for adapting the classic ‘long-form narrative’, the 19th century novel. It is also now used extensively for US TV long-form narratives (but these tend to be much longer than the six episodes of A Suitable Boy which would be termed a ‘mini-series‘ in the US). But because it is an adaptation of a very long novel (over 1400 pages for the paperback), the question of compression comes to the fore, as well as the selection of suitable dividing points and ‘cliffhangers’. The commission will be a big gamble for the BBC, costing at least £16 million (which means £2.5 million per episode, a figure greater than the current mean budget figure for UK features). Because the funding is coming solely from the BBC, this is a very risky venture and arguably dependent on overseas sales. The reaction of Indian-based YouTubers suggests that it has probably got an Indian sale already. The BBC is in a financial crisis making the situation even more important that the project is successful. The BBC is also promoting the serial as a ‘period drama production’ (it begins in 1951) which industry wisdom often suggests is a turn-off for younger viewers.
I haven’t read the novel and I haven’t yet found information about how long each episode will be, but compressing the narrative into 6 x 1 hour episodes as a minimum will be very difficult and even at 6 x 90 minutes (or 540 minutes) will be tough. The trick will be how to set up the story in Episode 1 with a hook that will retain enough viewers for Episode 2. The most experienced person able to do this may well be Andrew Davies. There may be many others but producers don’t like uncertainty (they are generally ‘risk averse’ as the industry jargon has it) and that’s possibly why they went with Davies. I’ve also seen reports that Vikram Seth requested Davies as adapter. Mira Nair has a long and distinguished list of credits. I’ve seen all bar one of her features and I’m a big admirer but a serial of this magnitude is something new for her. It doesn’t help that her previous attempt at filming a long novel, Thackeray’s Vanity Fair (US-UK-India 2004), did not do well at the box office, although I enjoyed it. More pressure on Ms Nair means less leeway on the adapter.
There are three creative ‘writers’ involved in this production. Vikram Seth is Executive Producer as well as the author of the novel and Mira Nair is tasked with presenting the story on screen. The role of the adapter is not to write something new but to shape what exists already, to compress and possibly to restructure to fit the format. The director has to solve the problems the script will inevitably raise and the producer Aradhana Seth (the author’s sister, a distinguished artist and filmmaker) has to ensure that what eventually arrives on screen meets the original production aims. Does Davies’ lack of South Asian heritage threaten this creative team? Scanning the crew list for a shoot solely based in India, there are only a small number of Europeans/Americans such as cinematographer Declan Quinn involved. As a diaspora director working out of the US, Mira Nair has often used a mix of Indian and non-Indian personnel on her films made in India.
My final observation is just to suggest that part of the issue discussed here is the difference between film and TV, especially in the UK. This simply means that, in the UK, TV is seen as a writer’s medium and film is generally discussed as a director’s medium. This possibly comes from the UK’s strong literary/theatre tradition, embedded to some extent in the education system and the tendency for film culture to have been associated with ‘low culture’. The low status of foreign language cinema or cinema steeped in other cultures means that in the UK, ‘Mira Nair’ might not mean as much to non-diaspora audiences as ‘Sally Wainwright‘ or Jed Mercurio as TV writers, nor indeed as ‘Andrew Davies’ as adapter. It is true that many of the so-called ‘Quality TV’ long-term narratives made for cable and streaming in the US have attracted major directors such as Martin Scorsese, but that hasn’t happened to the same extent in the UK.
In conclusion, I want to support Tufayel Ahmed’s call for more writing commissions for people of colour from British broadcasters. However, the best way to do this is to develop a wide range of new writers who can gain experience on a diverse range of productions. These mega projects like A Suitable Boy are usually going to happen through co-productions and their production practices and funding packages are likely to resemble those of the film industry. But that’s another story. One last point, there is a long established writer of South Asian background who has many credits and a high profile – Hanif Kureshi. But would he be a suitable adapter?
I’m looking forward to watching A Suitable Boy. Here’s the BBC trailer:
Talking Pictures TV showed another rare and intriguing British film this week with this strange offering from 1959, distributed originally by Renown, the company linked to TPTV. I’ve given both titles as the film was released in the US by Allied Artists and it stars two well-known Hollywood names from the period.
There are many strange aspects of the production. It is an adaptation of an A. J. Cronin novel. Cronin’s work was the basis for many films, most famously The Citadel (1937), The Stars Look Down (1940) and Hatters Castle (1942). These were UK productions, but other adaptations were produced in Hollywood and, I was surprised to discover, in various Indian language cinemas. There have also been several TV adaptations in territories around the world. Beyond This Place is an adaptation of a novel written in 1950 – when Cronin was resident in the US. It had already been adapted for US television with Sidney Lumet directing in 1957. All of this suggests that a Cronin adaptation should still have been a ‘prestige’ production of some kind, yet this 1959 film was shot at Walton Studios (once Nettlefold Studios and in the late 1950s mainly involved in TV productions) by an independent producer. It was made in black and white and presented in 1.37:1, almost as if was produced for television.
But though it may seem a low-budget production, there is a starry cast and some well-known creatives are involved. It’s the second directorial feature for Jack Cardiff, the celebrated cinematographer, and also an early outing for Ken Adam, listed as ‘Art Director’. The camerawork itself is in the hands of Wilkie Cooper, a major figure in British cinema since his first film as DoP on The Foreman Went to France (1942). The two American stars are Vera Miles and Van Johnson and the British actors include Jean Kent, Emlyn Williams and Bernard Lee.
The narrative begins in Liverpool with Irish migrant Patrick Mathry playing with his young son Paul in the park. The time appears to be early in the war when Liverpool was the second most-bombed city in the UK after London. We then see Mathry visiting a young woman, but he leaves angrily when the woman’s room-mate intervenes just before an air-raid. After the air-raid Mathry is arrested for murder. The story then leaps forward to the present when Paul Mathry (Van Johnson) arrives on a merchant ship from America. With four days leave he is determined to find out what happened to his father and he finds a helpful librarian Lena (Vera Miles). Paul discovers that his father was found guilty of murder but was not hanged and instead is serving a long sentence in HMP Wakefield. Shocked by his discovery (his mother had told him his father had been killed during the war and she and Paul had subsequently been evacuated to New York) he begins to investigate the murder case, helped by Lena.
This brief description should already raise questions. The murder was in 1941 so Paul should only be in his mid-twenties (in the novel I think he is a recent graduate, working on ships to see the world). Van Johnson was 42 when the film was shot in 1958. He was always a fresh-faced actor but it doesn’t make too much sense to cast him in the lead. Vera Miles, at the time under contract to Hitchcock after The Wrong Man (1956), would have been in her late twenties, possibly a little old for the part, but otherwise OK. The plot later reveals that she is Canadian, but her accent is not pronounced.
There is a considerable amount of location footage in Liverpool in the film and this is what originally attracted me. As in some other Liverpool set films, there are trips on the ferry, through the Mersey tunnel and around the waterfront and the docks. This latter location raises a set of questions about genre. A chase sequence through the docks at night is atmospherically shot, making great use of bright lights and dark shadows, reminiscent of John Alton’s late 1940s work. This sequence could come from a film noir – as could the delving into a past murder case and the character of the chief witness, the ‘other woman’ played by Jean Kent. But much of the rest of the narrative feels more like a family melodrama. Cronin was well-known as a writer of exciting dramas that often feature a crusading character and conflicts built around questions of social class, privilege and injustice. That’s the case here too. As Paul investigates it becomes clear that his father’s trial was a career breakthrough for both the prosecuting counsel and the senior police investigator. Lena is a potential romantic partner for Paul but she too has a back story that raises questions about social issues. When I watched the film I had the very strong feeling that I was seeing a film from 1950 rather than 1959. The Academy ratio and the noir lighting are probably the main reasons for this. Jean Kent became a star as a young woman in the 1940s often playing ‘good-time girls’, femmes fatales or darker characters in melodramas. A couple of years after Beyond This Place she played Queen Elizabeth I in ITC’s tea-time TV series, Sir Francis Drake (1961-2).
I enjoyed many aspects of the film despite its flaws. The Cronin story was adapted by Kenneth Hyde and the screenplay then produced by Ken Taylor. There are several changes to the original story and I get the impression that too much might have been crammed into the script. I found the film fast-moving but several commentators complain it is slow-moving. Perhaps this is connected to the confusion over genre expectations? The Liverpool setting works well in terms of location shooting but like those other Liverpool set films produced from London (e.g. The Magnet, 1950 or Waterfront, 1950), there are no genuine scousers, or at least actors with recognisable scouse accents, amongst the cast. I’m not sure the UK title helped the film – what does it mean? (The US title is more generic, but at least it offers something familiar.) I realise that I don’t really know the Cronin novels or the other film adaptations, though I have heard episodes of radio serials and of course as I a child I couldn’t avoid the BBC adaptation of Dr Finlay’s Casebook, which ran for 8 seasons between 1962 and 1971. Cronin (born in 1896) was Irish-Scottish by background (Paul in the novel of Beyond This Place lives in Belfast) and trained as a doctor. His medical training perhaps turned him away from religion to which he returned in the 1930s when illness and convalescence turned him towards writing which came to him very easily. Religion and medicine are both important elements in his stories. He was one of several popular novelists whose novels were adapted during the studio period of filmmaking. Some of that solid storytelling is certainly evident in Beyond This Place and I think I’ll now be more prepared to look at some other Cronin adaptations.
This is a candidate for the standout film of My French Film Festival. It is one of the most beautiful films I’ve seen and also one of the saddest and most desperate despite a more optimistic tone towards the end of the narrative. As an animation it affected me as much as classics like Grave of the Fireflies (Japan 1988). There are many kinds of animated films but as far as drawn/painted animation is concerned, I would place French productions (linked to a graphic novel industry) alongside Japanese anime and manga.
The source here is a novel by ‘Yasmina Khadra’, the pseudonym of Mohammed Moulessehoul, an Algerian military man who chose to disguise his identity to avoid censure. The novel first appeared in 2002. The film adaptation is by two women, Zabou Breitman and Eléa Gobbé-Mévellec. Both women are credited as directors. Breitman is one of three writers who adapted the novel and Gobbé-Mévellec is the animator responsible for the overall graphic design and the ‘look’ of the film. I haven’t read the original novel but given the nature of the story, the gender shift in the control of the ‘voices’ of the characters would be worth exploring. (I’m referring here to the broader sense of how a character in a narrative can articulate how they feel rather than simply what they say.)
As the title suggests, the story is set in Kabul, but at a specific time between 1998 and 2001 when the Taliban occupied the Afghan capital that was reduced to ruins. They have imposed Sharia Law and are taking drastic action against anyone who attempts to flout the new restrictions on behaviour. The narrative focuses on two couples. Atiq is an older war veteran who has been made the gaoler of women condemned to die for lewd behaviour and other crimes. His wife Mussarat, the woman who nursed him after he was wounded, is now seriously ill. Zunaira is a young and very attractive teacher and artist who now rarely leaves the house because she cannot bear to wear a burqua. Her equally young husband Mohsen is also a teacher now despairing at what has happened to Kabul. Each of these four characters is attempting to come to terms with their situation and each finds that either they feel compelled to act in particular ways or that they attempt to do what they think is right only to discover that it leads to an unexpected and usually bad outcome.
I’ve seen some criticism that by focusing on an ‘academic’ couple, the story takes the kind of route that might be easiest for Western audiences, but this is balanced by the story of Atiq and Mussarat. In each case the couples meet others who offer different trajectories. Mohsen meets his old university teacher and Atiq meets a childhood friend and an elderly man – possibly the character who acts like a kind of wise man. The women meanwhile are caught between neighbours who look out for them and other women who seem to have become Taliban collaborators, acting as prison guards with their Kalashnikovs. The Taliban seem to revel in their own hypocrisy, lounging about with dancing girls behind closed doors and enforcing the social laws with violence. Everyone else is to some extent lost and bewildered.
There have been many narratives released in the West about what has happened in Afghanistan over the last 30-40 years. I don’t know which, if any, offer the most accurate representation – probably it isn’t possible. Many are stories created by exiles or Western observers. The ones I know best are those by the Iranian director Mohsen Makhmalbaf and especially by his daughter Samira. Both Mohsen and Samira have used elements of absurdity and surrealism as part of their approach. The most relevant comparison for The Swallows of Kabul is possibly Samira’s At Five in the Afternoon (Iran-France 2003), set immediately after the Taliban have been ousted by international forces. In that film a young woman, Noqreh, rebels against her conservative father and attends a school where she takes part in an election for ‘President’. I was struck by how in both her film and The Swallows of Kabul the two young women flout the strict dress code by wearing a pair of white court shoes with a low heel. Noqreh changes shoes as she moves from a Koranic school to the new school where women speak out. Zunaira wears her shoes defiantly, knowing she is asking for trouble. The shoes are the only ‘personal’ aspect of a woman’s appearance on the street – every woman wears the same burqua (though the children seem to recognise their mothers’ birqua when it is borrowed). The uniformity of the burqua-clad women is the other strong image I remember from the Iranian film and it is repeated in the still from The Swallows of Kabul in the image at the head of this post.
The strength of The Swallows of Kabul for me is in the approach to the animation style which I think works to create that sense of realism counterposed by surrealism. Much of the production process is explained in the Press Pack which is extremely useful. Zabou Breitman and Eléa Gobbé-Mévellec explain in some detail how the animation style developed. The animation house Les Armateurs, best-known internationally for The Triplets of Belleville and Ernest & Celestine were involved from the start but Zabou Breitman was convinced that she wanted a process that involved actors performing scenes first which would then be drawn, rather than voice actors adding dialogue to a conventional animation. Eléa Gobbé-Mévellec then provided the background ‘plates’ for the representation of the city and created the overall look of the film as a traditional 2D ‘drawn’ animation using brushwork and washes of colour. The filmed performances then led to a process similar too but distinct from rotoscoping which Breitman felt would be too ‘fluid’. The final result with the actors placed against the background offers a unique representation of Kabul under the Taliban. The dialogue is voiced by mainly French actors and I noted that Swann Arlaud appears as Mohsen, one of his three appearances in the My French Film Festival. Mussarat is voiced by the great Palestinian actor Hiam Abbass.
I really don’t understand why this film hasn’t got a UK release. It has appeared in festivals in the UK and is currently available (with English subs) for streaming on Curzon and also (at a lower price) on YouTube. Here’s a trailer with English subs.
Armando Iannucci’s brave and spectacular film, which presents David Copperfield as a tale told by its subject, has received mixed reviews. I don’t have much time for the people who can’t cope with the decision to cast actors from diverse backgrounds in the film. It’s now a common practice in theatre and it means a strong cast in this film as well as making for some provocative images. As Variety‘s reviewer wrote after its Toronto screening, it is interesting to see a young Indian boy being exploited in a workshop – something that might not have happened in the the UK but certainly happened in British India in the 19th century.
I was most impressed by the cast (all 74 of them, far too many to name individually!), the cinematography by Zac Nicholson and the settings (art direction, costume design, production design) and the ideas used to ‘break the fourth wall’. It was interesting to see the film not long after watching Little Women with the similar conceit of the author appearing in the story. In fact, I liked all the scenes, but I wasn’t sure what it all added up to. I’m not really a Dickens fan but I do remember watching a BBC serial as a child and reading the novel (which I enjoyed) a very long time ago. I knew this wasn’t a ‘faithful adaptation’ and that didn’t worry me, but because I couldn’t remember all the characters or the plot from the book, my attention did wander as I didn’t feel invested in the long narrative. The original serial/novel is so long that I’m assuming many parts of the narrative are compressed or simply excised by Iannucci and his co-writer Simon Blackwell. I suspect that for many audiences, their interest will be how Iannucci’s skills and creativity are used to re-present Dickens for a modern audience. They will also welcome the chance to see Peter Capaldi re-united with Iannucci in the role of Mr Micawber (still associated with W. C. Fields for me).
What I did notice was that the events reminded me of 18th century novels – the picaresque narratives of Fielding such as Tom Jones or Joseph Andrews, both filmed by Tony Richardson. It didn’t feel like a ‘Victorian’ narrative. Commentators often describe Dickens as a ‘Victorian writer’ but, thinking about it, the novel was published in 1850 after serialisation in 1849. Dickens would then have been in his late 30s so his childhood memories that fuel the narrative predate the Victorian era. In fact he would have been 25 when Victoria came to the throne. It’s appropriate then to think of the early events in the film as still being in the Regency period and in a sense a hangover from the 18th century. David Copperfield like most of Dickens’ stories is therefore a ‘Southern English’ story. There isn’t the sense of an industrial Britain developing that we find in the slightly later novels of Mrs Gaskell. There is no sign of railways, for instance (though Yarmouth was reached from Norwich by rail and passenger services began in 1844). Does this matter? Not really, but I think it feeds into a sense of the Dickensian imagination as set in an earlier period. Railways are the keystone for Victorian England for me.
The other question is whether the film is funny. I would call it amusing rather than side-splitting. This sounds like I’m putting it down, but I’m not. I’m glad I saw it. It was impressive to watch and I hope more people see it. Iannucci has brought out great performances from a talented cast and the film makes a pleasing spectacle. See it on the biggest screen possible.
Little Women, adapted from the novel and directed by Greta Gerwig, is a clever mainstream family entertainment (classified ‘U’ in the UK). It’s a mainstream studio movie for Gerwig who has been mainly associated with American Independent Cinema up to this point. It is very enjoyable to watch but also makes statements in line with current ideas about feminism and in particular the difficulties women have faced in becoming media producers and artists. The film has been a deserved success. The local single screen cinema I attended in a small market town was busy for a Thursday afternoon matinee in its third week of release and I understand that in Hebden Bridge, the cinema advised audiences that they may have to queue for admission and they should arrive early. Releasing at Christmas was a good move – some scenes in the snow and the colourful outfits of the March girls reminded me of another film with Christmas connections, Meet Me in St. Louis (1944). The success is richly deserved and there are many reviews out there so I’ll just make a few observations that might be less widely circulated.
First up is casting. Everyone is very good in their role but I’m intrigued that none of the March ‘girls’/women (the narrative deals with several years and previous films sometimes used two actors for some of the parts) are actually American. Saoirse Ronan as Jo was, I think born in New York, but grew up in Ireland from the age of 3. Emma Watson as Meg, was born in Paris, but grew up in England. Florence Pugh as Amy is English and Eiza Scanlen as Beth is Australian. In addition James Norton whose character marries Meg is also English (and currently playing Stephen Ward in the BBC serial on Christine Keeler). I don’t have a problem with this but I’m surprised as previous film versions have usually cast American actors. I’m wondering if there was a conscious decision to think of non-American English speakers because they might be more suited to a 19th century East Coast narrative? Of course, many American actors have played British characters, including Emma Stone who was at one point going to play Meg. Ms Stone played an 18th century English woman in The Favourite. But I want to link the casting to two other selections of ‘creative personnel’ for the film, cinematographer Yorick Le Saux and composer Alexandre Desplat, both French, though with experience on American films.
The ‘literary adaptation’, especially of 19th century novels, is a British ‘thing’ for good or ill. For a period they were known in the UK as ‘heritage films’, a generic category that is equally popular in France. My feeling is that the British and French ‘heritage films’ look and feel different, though I confess I’m not sure exactly what the differences might be. I am inclined to say that Little Women ‘sounds’ British and looks French – but the actions are American? Partly this is because I was riveted by some of the camerawork which at different times made me think of various European painting styles. I was particularly taken by long shots of the Laurence house in Concord and the beach scenes which presumably are meant to be the New England coast but could for me have been Europe. Allied to this, I was easily accepting of the Paris scenes as being shot in Paris when they were actually in the US. Gerwig (or Columbia) also cast French actor-director Louis Garrel as ‘the Professor’.
Finally re the casting, I didn’t recognise Chris Cooper at all as Mr Laurence, but I thought him very good. Laura Dern and Meryl Streep are also effective as Marmee and Aunt March. Saoirse Ronan plays the lead and she has great screen presence and charisma, but in some ways Florence Pugh steals the film and I did feel sorry for Emma Watson as Meg, though it is the part rather than the performance that means she makes less impact than Pugh’s Amy.
The major innovation in Greta Gerwig’s adaptation is the restructuring of the narrative, so that flashbacks reveal to us how the March daughters were, back in 1861, and how they are ‘now’ in 1867. Cuts are often made ‘seamlessly’ on similar movements by the same character. This has been much heralded by critics but I found it disconcerting at first. I like to think I am a reasonably skilled reader, but I had to ‘work’ to follow the narrative and reassemble the plot as we went along. Eventually I found myself in tune with the flashbacks but I wonder how many audiences were either confused or just allowed the overall narrative flow to take them along? Perhaps most audiences, especially in North America, know the story so well that they could follow events with no problem at all? The major innovation in the film appears to be to ‘play’ with the scenes detailing how the sisters are influenced or not in terms of the need to marry ‘well’ – i.e. to rich men. I haven’t read the novel but Gerwig’s script seems to shift the discourse around the marriage ‘deal’ to make it a more complex issue about the possibility for women to control their own creativity – and to get properly recompensed for their output. Jo achieves this by writing about herself and her family and getting the full royalties. Amy marries into money but only once she has worked out the economics of life as a female fine artist.
I’m not part of the target audience for this film and I note that there are female commentators who don’t like the film. Hadley Freeman posted a negative personal take in her Guardian column. I found her argument confusing but along with the many comments on her piece she does articulate some of the concerns about Hollywood’s practice of re-making literary adaptations of the same canonical novels. The video essay below by ‘Be Kind Rewind’ is quite long (25 mins) but highly recommended. It takes you through the 1933, 1949 and 1994 film versions and suggests the ways in which the current version is different. It’s both scholarly and engaging – a neat trick. What comes over most of all is that each version is appropriate for its time. I don’t know who is behind this video but she is very good (and she has other similar essays on her YouTube Channel that are well worth viewing).