There are 3 previous archiveable versions of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women– but Gerwig’s version is utterly distinct and cinematically spectacular—the only one close (and they’re all in the archives) is Cukor’ s 1933 version with Katharine Hepburn and I’d have to give the edge to Gerwig after one viewing
From the opening shot (a wonderful setting of the frame as Saoirse Ronan’s Jo is about to walk into the publishing office) this is an improved Gerwig behind the camera from her debut in 2017. This isn’t just about rich characterizations, top-shelf acting and screenwriting like Lady Bird—there are audacious aesthetic and formal moves coming from Gerwig here.
A brilliant formal/visual choice is non-linear narrative structure editing from Gerwig. It’s not just the rearranging of the order of the story (which is powerful in of itself with contrasting scenes due to the editing choices) but she, along with DP Yorick Le Saux (from Guadagnino’s A Bigger Splash and I Am Love) light and color the two narrative time strands distinctly. The flashbacks are warmly lit, natural lighting from the sun (pouring in every scene even in winter), the characters are in rich colors- reds, maroons, yellows… the present day (when the sisters are split up) are juxtaposed. It is gray, overcast— lots of whites, blues and blacks—colder. There is a bit of this in Ari Aster’s Midsommar earlier this year of course with winter and summer, dark and light— I saw this in Career Girls from Mike Leigh in 1997 (he reversed it and lit the present day warmer and the flashbacks colder). In Gerwig’s work it makes for a stark contrast as we jump back and forth between the two strands of time. You can see the drastic change at each cut—and when we’re in the same location as well (most notable being the two scenes on the beach below).
The actual in-scene editing is a triumph as well. I’m not putting the editing here on the level of Whiplash, Dunkirk but editor Nick Houy should be commended. Gerwig’s conversations are delivered rapidly (often with Altman-like overlapping dialogue) and then Houy and Gerwig cut sharply as the dialogue is delivered. There is a lot packed here into the 135 minutes—each character/actor given showcase scenes
The opening shot with Ronan outside the door (and framed by it) of the publishing house is far from the only wall-art in a museum setting-of-the-frame by Gerwig. There is a breathtaking shot of Florence Pugh getting proposed to by Fred Vaughn in a long shot. The landscape—the symmetry— it looks like a shot from Marie Antoinette by Sofia Coppola or Barry Lyndon from Kubrick . A closely similar shot is when Timothée Chalamet’s (who is sublime here) kisses Pugh for the first time.
Another other standalone praise-worthy mise-en-scene shots are the four girls in profile at the window
Perhaps the greatest musical score of the year- and one of the great Alexandre Desplat scores ever (and he’s certainly right there with Zimmer, Greenwood and a few others for this generation) —playful, vibrant—full of life and color- a perfect match for the material
The family home (and the school at the end— almost like a really great commune) and connection/kinship created is palpable– Gerwig’s choices and execution, the actors, the production design—its intoxicating—these are complex characters with complex relationships
I haven’t fully baked the idea but there’s a thesis running through Gerwig’s two films now—an autobiographical treatment (Jo here is writing her own story (or Alcott’s)) and there is much in common with the two characters Ronan portrays). Gerwig isn’t a realist like the Dardenne’s per se— the point is it is her voice.
I rarely talk about the Academy Awards- but I was impressed that not only should this film be nominated for writing, costume and some acting awards—but editing, cinematography, and yes- perhaps director and picture- Gerwig is deserving (not to say there aren’t others in this loaded year)
Ronan comes off with the greatest acting accomplishment here. Through two films she appears to be Gerwig’s muse (or surrogate) and this may be Ronan’s singles greatest performance (which is saying something as she not only has Lady Bird on her resume but Atonement as well). She is the best screen Jo March – or at least on par with Hepburn’s 1933 performance. She slays Winona Ryder’s 1994 (fine but not transcendent) performance. Pugh and Chalamet are next (though the entire ensemble is so good). Chalamet is perfect. Pugh blew me away too but if I have a nit to pick with this film, it’s the scenes where Pugh plays the like 12 year old Amy March. The pigtails help, but it is just too much to ask and they should have followed the 1949 version (where Liz Taylor plays Meg) and made Meg older. Pugh’s baby voice doesn’t fully come off. Laura Dern (what a 2019 she is having with this and Marriage Story) is strong, and veteran talent Chris Cooper breaks your heart in several scenes. The great Meryl Streep doesn’t have many scenes but she adds something to the character that has never been there before. And I felt privileged to watch her and Ronan spar briefly