Entertainment

Louisa May Alcott's Little Women will leave you with a New Year glow, writes BRIAN VINER


As befits this festive season, here’s a quiz question: beyond the fact that they are or were all female writers, what do Margaret Atwood, Doris Lessing, Anne Tyler, Nora Ephron and Simone de Beauvoir have in common?

One answer is that at one time or another they all cited Louisa May Alcott’s auto- biographical 1860s novel Little Women as a major influence on their own work.

I like to think that they would all heartily approve of this delightful screen version, written and directed by the prodigiously talented Greta Gerwig.

I watched it with my wife who, as it happens, is also a novelist, and 20 minutes in she whispered in my ear: ‘Isn’t it wonderful?’ That’s the kind of film this is; you want to share its charms with loved ones.

Little Women, which follows the lives of four sisters, Amy, Jo, Beth and Meg, is set in the aftermath of the Civil War

Little Women, which follows the lives of four sisters, Amy, Jo, Beth and Meg, is set in the aftermath of the Civil War

At the same time, I expect some of the menfolk out there will be put off by its very title, and perhaps hazy memories of Christmases past when their mothers or sisters dabbed their eyes in front of the 1949 version with Elizabeth Taylor.

Don’t let them cry off. This Little Women is a bona fide treat for the whole family.

More than 100 years have passed since the book was first adapted for the screen. 

There was a silent version in 1917, and there’s been another one just about every generation since, with Katharine Hepburn, June Allyson and Winona Ryder among those breathing life into Alcott’s spirited alter ego, Jo March.

But it will be a brave filmmaker who has another go at it now we have Gerwig’s supremely clever and enormously engaging adaptation, this time with Saoirse Ronan as Jo, and Emma Watson, Florence Pugh and Eliza Scanlen playing her sisters Meg, Amy and Beth.

It is a quirk of the casting, by the way, that the four young women at the heart of this quintessentially American coming-of-age tale, about a genteelly impoverished New England family during and shortly after the U.S. Civil War, are played by two actresses from old England, one from Ireland and one from Australia. 

Another Brit, James Norton, pops up as John Brooke, the kind but hard-up tutor who marries Meg.

Little Women is by definition a female story, with men only in supporting roles. Pictured: Timothée Chalamet and Saoirse Ronan

Little Women is by definition a female story, with men only in supporting roles. Pictured: Timothée Chalamet and Saoirse Ronan

Still, North America is well enough represented, with Meryl Streep on fine form as wealthy, waspish spinster Aunt March, dropping her one-liners — ‘I may not always be right, but I’m never wrong’ — just as acidly, but with the same tiny hint that her heart might not be made entirely of stone, as Dame Maggie Smith in Downton Abbey.

Laura Dern, too, is pitch-perfect as the girls’ warm-hearted mother. For anyone who recoiled from her character’s bitchiness in TV drama Big Little Lies, or quailed before her cut-throat divorce lawyer in Marriage Story, it’s uplifting to see Dern playing such a paragon of goodness. 

Little Women is by definition a female story, with men only in supporting roles, but Timothee Chalamet is exactly right as ‘Laurie’ Laurence, whose love for the March sisters, his dearest childhood friends, turns to romantic longing.

I seem to be alone in thinking him miscast as Henry V in the recent Netflix production The King — he didn’t convince for a moment as a warrior — but he’s on much firmer ground here as fey, feckless, endearing Laurie.

Chris Cooper and Tracy Letts bring further touches of class, along with Bob Odenkirk, who plays the girls’ mostly absentee father, away serving the Union cause. So the performances are terrific across the board, and that includes Watson (who reportedly replaced Emma Stone). 

She’s a limited actress magicked by Hermione Granger’s wand into better roles than her talent deserves, but she’s perfectly lovely as Meg, the eldest sister.

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However, this is Gerwig’s show. She has ingeniously tinkered with the book’s simple chronology, daring to move its cherished Christmas Day opening and constantly whisking us forward and backward in time. 

This helps us to understand how the sisters, with their contrasting personalities and temperaments, evolve as they do through the many episodes chronicling their deep love for one another, their personal desires, petty jealousies, occasional downright antagonism and solidarity in the face of illness and death.

The first time this happens, we are guided by a ‘seven years earlier’ caption. After that, we’re on our own, which feels like a nod of respect from the director for her audience. It’s artfully done.

If the film does have a standout star, it’s Ronan, who glittered two years ago in Gerwig’s acclaimed directorial debut, Lady Bird. 

She’s wonderful as fiercely independent and impulsive Jo, an aspiring novelist, whose ambitions and accomplishments as a writer very aptly book-end the film. 

Without it feeling forced or anachronistic, there’s something unmistakeably modern about Jo: an 1860s heroine exactly in tune with #MeToo sensibilities.

But if this makes the film sound like a feminist tract, don’t be alarmed. It really isn’t. It is a ravishingly-shot, exquisitely acted emotional rollercoaster that at times didn’t just activate my tear ducts but had me gurning wildly to stop myself from blubbing audibly. Alongside me, my wife was going through similar contortions.

Don’t say you haven’t been warned. And Happy New Year.

A SHORTER version of this review ran last month.

Acting and motherhood are a real Marvel for Johansson 

Interview by Gabrielle Donnelly

Thor directed Scarlett Johansson to her latest role. That’s Thor as in Chris Hemsworth, her good friend and co-star in the star-studded Avengers film franchise in which she plays the superhero Black Widow.

A couple of years ago, Chris had just starred in Thor: Ragnarok, directed by up-and-coming New Zealander Taika Waititi, who had given Chris the script for a very different sort of film he was writing called Jojo Rabbit.

When Chris and Scarlett met on the set of the next Avengers movie, Infinity War, he urged her to give it a read.

Scarlett Johansson (left) and Roman Griffin Davis (right) star in the new film Jojo Rabbit

 Scarlett Johansson (left) and Roman Griffin Davis (right) star in the new film Jojo Rabbit

‘I don’t think it was even about me having a part in it,’ says Scarlett when we meet in Los Angeles. ‘He was just telling me he’d read this incredible script and kept saying: ‘You have to read it, it’s like nothing I’ve ever read.’ ‘

Jojo Rabbit is a pitch-black comedy set in Nazi Germany towards the end of World War II featuring slapstick turns from the Hitler Youth Movement, a group of comic Gestapo officers and a ten-year-old boy whose imaginary best friend is Adolf Hitler. Difficult to describe, let alone defend.

But set against this unlikely background is a simple and tender tale. Rosie (Johansson) is a single mother struggling to raise her son Jojo (12-year-old British actor Roman Griffin Davis) without anti-Semitic prejudice in an environment that is rife with it.

When Jojo, who’s been brainwashed into Nazi anti-Semitism, discovers a Jewish girl named Rosie is hiding in the attic, he’s forced to open his heart to those he had dismissed as the enemy.

‘The script was this perfect gem,’ says Scarlett, 35. ‘I’ve read enough of them to know when something comes across, and this was so beautiful, whimsical and childlike — a bit like Taika, really — and also very poignant and heartbreaking. I wanted to be part of it from the beginning.’

Scarlett's partner is Colin Jost (left), a comic, actor and head writer on New York's legendary satire show Saturday Night Live

Scarlett’s partner is Colin Jost (left), a comic, actor and head writer on New York’s legendary satire show Saturday Night Live

‘It’s not for everyone, of course,’ says Scarlett who, like Waititi, is partly Jewish. ‘But I think it’s a message that’s important for everyone to hear. 

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I’ve experienced anti-Semitism in my life — I think every Jewish person has. It’s alive, probably now more than ever, and there’s a lot of fear out there.

‘But that’s why I think the studio who put this out, Fox Searchlight, were so brave, because they were saying: ‘It’s OK to laugh at this.’

‘Humour can be a way to deliver a very powerful message by saying: ‘OK, now that I’ve got your attention, here’s what I really want to say.’

Jojo is a far cry from the Marvel comic franchise, though Scarlett likes making the superhero movies. 

‘Everybody talks about this idea that you do one film for commercial cinema and one for yourself, but I don’t see it like that because the Marvel stuff is really fulfilling. I feel like all the work I do is for my own fulfillment, whether it’s big or small, whether people go to see it or not.’

Born and brought up in Manhattan, the daughter of a Danish-born architect father and a Bronx-Jewish film producer mother, Scarlett first appeared on film before she was ten, and says that even before that she and her elder sister Vanessa were putting on performances at home.

‘We were the singing and dancing team,’ she smiles. ‘We did all the parts in Beauty And The Beast. My sister was Belle and I was the townspeople because that’s more my thing. I went to Lee Strasberg [the method acting school] when I was a kid, I took musical theatre and tap dance and all that.’

Scarlett was nine when she got her first professional role, a small part in the children’s adventure film North, and just 11 when she had her first starring part as the younger sister of a pregnant teenager in the 1996 comedy drama Manny & Lo.

At 13, she hit the big time as tortured teen Grace in Robert Redford’s drama The Horse Whisperer before establishing herself as a grown-up actress playing Bill Murray’s unlikely love interest in Lost In Translation.

Scarlett tends to be drawn to people who started working early in their own professions. 

‘I have friends who are classical musicians, dancers and gymnasts, and we all share a similar experience in that we were professional children. That meant it was very clear to us what we loved to do, and we all felt like we were pursuing an art that was in our soul, in our bones. I think we still do.’

Scarlett’s partner is Colin Jost, a comic, actor and head writer on New York’s legendary satire show Saturday Night Live, and they have been together almost three years. 

‘There’s a lot of laughter in our home right now,’ says Scarlett, though she cannot deny it has been a rocky path to stability. Her first brief marriage to actor Ryan Reynolds lasted from 2008 to 2010 — ‘I was 23,’ she has since commented, ‘I didn’t really have an understanding of marriage. Maybe I kind of romanticised it.’

In 2012, she started dating French-born advertising executive Romain Dauriac, with whom she had a daughter Rose, now five; the two married in 2014 but separated two years later, and were finally divorced in 2017. 

While in the process of getting a divorce, Noah Baumbach asked her to star in his new film Marriage Story, which is about . . . divorce.

Life imitating art? ‘Hmm,’ she pauses. ‘I don’t necessarily think you have to have lived the experience of the character you’re playing, but there’s obviously stuff in there. For me, more than being a divorcee, was the fact I was a parent and was now having the experience of co-parenting.’

She says that, as co-parents go, she and Romain are doing pretty well. ‘We do as good as we can. I’d never experienced anything like it before so there was no rule book, but if you have respect for the other person, then that’s important. You each need to respect the other as a co-parent, and I think we try to act from that space.’

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One thing motherhood has taught her, she says, is that she can’t control what happens in her life. ‘You can’t anticipate anything with kids, and it’s an incredible life lesson where sometimes you just have to sit in the moment and be there and that’s it.

‘You just have to be present with whatever is happening. Just being able to let go of control makes me feel more in control, because now I’ve accepted that everything is out of control, I know there’s nothing I can do about it. And that’s a very interesting place to be.’

JOJO Rabbit is in cinemas on January 3. Marriage Story is available on Netflix.

Enjoy six of the best…

By Tully Potter

The Tchaikovsky Project: Symphonies & Piano Concertos (Decca 483 4942, seven CDs)

The Tchaikovsky Project: Symphonies & Piano Concertos (Decca 483 4942, seven CDs)

The Tchaikovsky Project: Symphonies & Piano Concertos (Decca 483 4942, seven CDs)

A delectable package for the Tchaikovsky lover: most of the composer’s great orchestral concert music, performed by Russian conductor Semyon Bychkov and the Czech Philharmonic. 

They give us the six numbered symphonies plus Manfred, Romeo And Juliet, the Serenade For Strings and the three Piano Concertos with Kirill Gerstein as soloist. It is especially rewarding to have the original versions of the First and Second Concertos. Beautifully played, charismatically interpreted.

Beethoven: Complete Piano Sonatas (Sony 19075843182, nine CDs)

The Russian-German pianist Igor Levit made a splash with his 2013 debut album for Sony, of Beethoven’s last five Sonatas.

Here they are again, with the previous 27 Sonatas added to make one of the best sets of these masterpieces ever recorded. Beethoven put some of his most original thoughts into his Sonatas and Levit has a hotline to them.

Handel: Samson (Linn CKD 599, three CDs)

This is the best we have yet had from John Butt and his Dunedin Consort of Edinburgh. Apart from Messiah, Samson is the Handel oratorio with the most elevated text: librettist Newburgh Hamilton used John Milton’s Samson Agonistes as its basis.

Handel rose to the challenge and composed a string of incomparable choruses and arias, the finest being Let The Bright Seraphim for soprano and Honour and Arms for bass.

Butt increases the chorus slightly over what Handel had, and both singing and playing are first-rate.

Schubert: Die Schöne Müllerin (Chandos CHAN 20113)

Our greatest singer of today, Welshman Roderick Williams, is finally getting to grips with Schubert’s Lieder, assisted by pianist Iain Burnside. Normally one might like a tenor for this, but Schubert’s favourite singer was Johann Michael Vogl, a baritone like Williams, who takes a leaf out of Vogl’s book by introducing modest decorations. Williams’s beautiful tone and Burnside’s sensitive pianism shine.

Britten: Complete String Quartets (Chandos CHAN 20124(2), two CDs)

THIS is a splendid way for the Doric Quartet to enter their third decade. We get all three of Benjamin Britten’s numbered String Quartets, plus the Three Divertimenti from the early 1930s, published after his death. They also offer a group of Purcell Fantasias, reflecting Britten’s love of this composer.

Fabio Biondi: The 1690 'Tuscan' Stradivari (Glossa GCD 923412)

Fabio Biondi: The 1690 ‘Tuscan’ Stradivari (Glossa GCD 923412)

Fabio Biondi: The 1690 ‘Tuscan’ Stradivari (Glossa GCD 923412)

Had Fabio Biondi made no other record, we would know from this one that he was a great violinist.

Ostensibly he is demonstrating the 1690 ‘Tuscan’ Strad. Supported by harpsichordist Paola Poncet and two other colleagues, he gives glowing performances of old Italian music by Veracini, Tartini, Corelli, Geminiani, Locatelli and Vivaldi. 

His bronze tone, impeccable legato and lively rhythm are captured in the Auditorium at the Parco della Musica in Rome — the violin’s overtones really ring out. 



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