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The Battle of Little Jo Review

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A young woman in the Old West, Josephine becomes pregnant by a local photographer and is thrown out of home. Constrained by the 19th century limits imposed upon women, Josephine dresses as a man and strives to make a living and hide her identity in a small frontier town.

★★★★★

Whatever the myriad permutations of the Western over the years, the essence remains the same: an American individualist pursuing freedom and adventure in the West, a hero often dust-choked and gun-smoked, but absolutely always male — until now. Maggie Greenwald, self-proclaimed feminist director of the Jim Thompson adaptation The Kill-Off, here provides a revisionist tale of the Old West based on the life and rather extraordinary times of Little Jo Monaghan — a lonesome cowboy of the American frontier whose boyish good looks, unfeasibly high voice and singular lack of interest in womanising incredibly fail — for the better part of 50 years — to alert even her closest rootin', tootin', macho chum Frank (Hopkins, quite possibly a personal best) and the local misogynist Percy (McKellen, superb) to the fact that Jo is, in fact, a Josephine.

Played to dignified effect by Suzy Amis — particularly in the gentle love scenes when Jo takes her Chinese Coolie (Chung) into her confidence and thence her bed — Jo is very much a victim of her age, a free-spirited young woman cast out by her family when she gets pregnant into a world dominated by unforgiving, primitive men, and is forced to don the trousers in order not just to survive, but to live free of the constraints imposed on women of the time.

Essentially the story of a woman in search of her place in the world, and so coming complete with contemporary resonances, this does, however, sketch in sufficient conventional Western plot points — all set against the stunningly photographed backdrop of deepest Montana — to broaden its appeal beyond being simply a "wimmin's" film. And while it fails to deliver the sheer blood, sweat and tears that mark out the greatest Westerns, it does give a perspective on the West quite possibly truer than most, standing out as an intriguing and long-awaited tribute not just to the likes of Jo but also to the many thousands of ordinary women who, for better or worse, joined their menfolk on the trail.

Although it lacks the power of some of the great Westerns, this remains a engaging story charmingly told.

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