Directed by Greta Gerwig
I am a total outlier when it comes to the phenomenon of “Little Women”. I have never read it. I have never seen it on screen or on stage and I didn’t even know the story until I saw the latest version presented by Greta Gerwig. As a result, I imagine my take on the film…and Ms. Gerwig’s editing/storytelling decisions will be slightly…or considerably… different than most.
Now, lest you think I’m going the wrong way with this, I found it to be an absolutely delightful…if occasionally flawed…film that will last for years and years as a favorite to those who love the book, enjoy dates on the couch during stormy nights, and, of course, little women everywhere. The story is well told, the performances are exceptional (and often brilliant), and the settings are sumptuous and evocative. Most importantly, Ms. Gerwig, obviously an actor’s director, has given her actors complete leeway to do their thing. And because casting directors, Kathy Driscoll and Francine Maisler have done their jobs so well, the lines of delineation between the four sisters is incredibly specific without ever being too obvious, which in less capable hands might have made for a snooze-fest of a story.
But it’s not. At all. And a large percentage the film’s high level success comes down to Saoirse Ronan’s performance. In combination with her work in “Lady Bird” and “Brooklyn”, she has firmly placed herself in rarefied air heretofore only inhabited by a young Ms. Streep (who is terrific in this as the family dowager). She is confident, insecure, hilarious, heart wrenching and, above all else, as real as real can be. I will never be able to forget her delivery of one line in particular…not because of its dramatic nature (although the line itself is extremely dramatic), but because of how absolutely human it sounds coming from her lips…which, in turn, allows us to do the emotional work for her. And while we normally notice a period performance because it takes place in period surroundings, or with period text, Ms. Ronan flips that formula on its head. We believe we are there because she believes so strongly, puts us on her shoulders and takes us there. I have yet to see “Marriage Story”, but until proven otherwise, I have not seen a better female lead performance than this one in the calendar year 2019. A shame, then, that my union, the Screen ACTORS Guild, did not see fit to nominate her.
But she is far from alone as a massive piece of this terrific puzzle. Florence Pugh is also fantastic, if a little less so when playing the younger version of her character. Eliza Scanlon, stuck playing a plot point, is, nonetheless, a major presence even when not on screen. Emma Watson is absolutely fine as the eldest girl, even if she is totally outplayed by the other three. And while I’m so glad Laura Dern has made the most of her second chance to be a significant member of the film and television acting community, here she is a little too milquetoast….too perfect. As for the boys…it is fairly well known that I am not a fan of Timothee Chalamet, and while I can understand why Gerwig saw him as an interesting choice for Laurie, to me he comes across as just the other side of too contemporary, and, as a result, not necessarily in the same movie as everyone else. More Importantly, Laurie’s devotion and ardor is of such import, his laissez faire approach only acts to undermine. But Tracey Letts…I mean…come ON! Who is having a better year as a character actor than him?! Anchoring the film’s bookends, he is perfect.
As for Ms. Gerwig’s overall direction, I would be remiss not to mention that in the first hour of the film, I found myself growing anxious that the film would merely be a Masterpiece Theater adaptation…everyone was so perfect and happy and lovely and…well…you get the idea. But midway through the film’s second act, when that facade begins to crumble, I quickly forgot that feeling and was all in. And while many people seem to have had a problem with her decision to use what they considered either confusing or unnecessary time-shifting, as someone who knows nothing about the book, I found it to be engaging, a welcome challenge from the sweetness of the family, and a means to heighten the sense of loss, love and hope that surrounds our main characters.
And then there’s the production itself. This feels like Concord, MA and NYC in the years before civil war would destroy anything that remained of the idyllic nature of things. Yorick Le Saux’s camera work is lovely…easily painting a picture of a specific time and place – as well as inferring emotional narrative with his lighting choices. Jess Gonchor’s production design, come to life via Chris Farmer and Claire Kaufman’s sets, is magical. The music comes from Alexandre Desplat. Listen, the guy couldn’t write a bad score if he wasn’t allowed to use his ears. It’s simple, filled with specific themes, and very emotional. In other words, it’s perfect. Listening to it right now. Yum.
I loved this film. Easily one of my top five of the year and a shoo-in to be nominated for several awards come the morning of January 13th. Not that it needs the recognition. It stands as superb on its own merits. If you have yet to see it, find a moment when you are either in love, or feeling some self-doubt, and go! It’s exceptional.
(Careful with this trailer…lots of spoilers…unless you know the book…in which case…watch on…)