The Biggest Little Farm

Movie Review by Joan Ellis –

The Biggest Little Farm

The Biggest Little Farm will stand for a long while as a towering example of skill and attention to detail. As one who is not pulled in by stories about farming or animals, I was thoroughly unprepared for the emotional wallop delivered by this movie. Please don’t miss this experience.

John and Molly Chester live in an apartment where Molly indulges her love of cooking and harbors a dream of growing everything she might ever cook. Husband John narrates the story of what happened after neighbors’ complaints about their newly acquired barking dog drove them from their building. They’ve lost me already.

An hour north of Los Angeles, the couple buys 200 acres of uneven, dry, untillable land. Addressing their own ignorance, they also acquire the services of Alan York who advises them to emulate the natural ecosystem and stays on as their advisor. When they advertise for helpers, many come, and they stay.

We watch the gang acquire baby ducks, sheep, chickens, and others who supply the natural fertilizer for bringing the soil back to life. As this unfolds, seventy-five varieties of fruit flourish. Before long – just be patient – we realize we are seeing a kind of filming few of us have ever seen before.

In astonishing closeups, the camera captures the beauty and detail of the lives of the animals as they bring the land back to life under the care of the owners. Open yourselves to the magical creativity of this husband/wife team that never stops learning and loving what they do.

Drought, storms, and toxic water hit repeatedly and yet their dream materializes in a design that stuns us whenever the camera shows us the farm from a distance. In closeups of just a few inches, the behavior of the animals is nothing less than astonishing. From the eyes and skill of a photographer who is an artist, we learn things about beauty, about dedication, and about animals way beyond anything I have ever seen on film.

The ducks eat 90,000 troubling snails; more cows bring more manure; maggots are food for the chickens. The worst drought in 1200 years threatens the whole 200 acres. Then 18” of rain soaks all of it. Hawks attack from above, gophers and snakes from below. As the threats arrive, we watch the faces and behavior of animals as they sleep, stare, and react. We are astonished at the complexity and vulnerability of this web of life that is rooted in impermanence.

You will enjoy and admire the emotional depth of the couple and their tutor who are always growing as they solve the problems in the life they love. They don’t control nature; they live in harmony with what it hands them. The Chesters filmed their experiment in rare closeups every day for eight years in wind, fire, and rain. They have created an unprecedented experience for everyone who is silenced by the beauty of what they have done. 

Film Critic : Joan Ellis
Film Title : The Biggest Little Farm
Word Count : 496
Running Time : 1:31
Rating : PG
Date : May 12, 2019

This review was posted on May 11, 2019, in Documentary.

Red Joan

Movie Review by Joan Ellis –

Red Joan

With a cast of fine actors in the disturbing time slot of early Cold War, why is Red Joan not more absorbing? The events of the movie are historically enormous and yet they unfold here as if it was all a minor sub-plot in the Cold War. This may be partly British understatement but the major question we are left with is how this true story remained a secret until now.

The movie opens with the arrest in Britain of Joan Stanley (Judi Dench), a woman in her 80s. After that, the movie unfolds in episodes between Joan and the girl she was as a young physicist (Sophie Cookson) in 1938. Young Joan was thought to have “one of the quickest minds in atomic physics.

We learn that she is a physicist with a deep belief in peace. When her son, Nick (Ben Miles) learns from his elderly mother about her role in developing the A-bomb, he freezes in anger.

Sonya (Tereza Srbova) is the Communist agent who lures Joan into helping to give the bomb to Russia. As the young physicist learns about the possible catastrophe of the bomb in the hands of one nation – America – she is terrified of control by one country. She hands that bomb to the Russians.

How could her guilt have been unknown for so many decades? When her furious son confronts her, she still defends her position that the bomb in the hands of two countries was a safeguard for world peace. As the young physicist, she figured out how to separate two isotopes that could lead to a chain reaction and believed the bomb in the hands of one country was too dangerous.

We appreciate two moving performances from Judy Dench and Sophie Cookson as older and younger Joan but we wonder why director Trevor Nunn wraps an astonishing historical revelation in an ordinary feel. The memory of the New Mexico detonation and the erasure of Hiroshima brought my own mind back to that day when the New York Herald Tribune printed the event below the front page fold in a single column.

Even in exposure in her 80s, Joan is rooted in her dream of “an equal and just world.” She thought she was preventing war and “fighting for the living” by ensuring that possession by two rival countries could preserve the earth. Russia and the West on equal footing would avert war. That worked for decades but now the bomb is in the hands of many countries.

At movie’s end, we are told this is the true story of Malita Norwood who died at 93 and we leave the theater quietly, shaking our heads in wonder that this true story of a young female physicist could possibly have remained unknown for so long. We ask how and why this astonishing story never surfaced and why, even now, it is presented as an anecdote. Perhaps that’s why: she was a woman.

Film Critic : Joan Ellis
Film Title : Red Joan
Word Count : 501
Running Time :2:16
Rating : R
Date : May 5, 2019