Some stories just have a way of sticking around for generations. Sometimes it’s the characters, sometimes it’s the context of the story. In the case of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, it’s a little of both. The latest silver screen adaptation is as relevant as ever and carries an almost fantasy-like swagger that could make it the quintessential Christmas movie for a new generation.
There is no doubt Greta Gerwig is a talented filmmaker and her skill was quietly on display in one of the holiday season’s highest-profile movies. She has a fantastic understanding of tonal balance. The screenplay, which she adapted, never gets too funny or too heavy at any given moment which keeps the narrative fresh and puts the performances at the forefront of the work. Telling this story across multiple timelines that weren’t separated by large gaps made it a bit tough to track on occasion but if you follow the hairstyles, you’ll be okay. The pacing was perfect and she employed a subtle but incredibly effective push-and-pull technique to punctuate the emotional peaks and valleys for the audience.
Having never read the book nor seen any of the previous iterations of the story on TV or film, I’m probably in the minority but, given the message that was established, I was a bit surprised by the ending even though I shouldn’t be. Looking back, there was a conversation within the narrative about how to end stories in a way that ultimately makes them palatable to a large audience, and that’s exactly what happened. In almost any other year, Gerwig would be a finalist for Best Director but she’ll be one of the favorites to take home the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay. Regardless of shiny trophies, after only her third feature film, she’s proven to be one of the best filmmakers in the industry.
Even though the story focuses on all March sisters, the film boils down to three central performances from Saoirse Ronan, Florence Pugh, and Timotheé Chalamet. Ronan has had a gradual but sharp upward trajectory over the past decade. When I first saw her in The Lovely Bones (2009), I never thought she would end up being one of Hollywood’s most consistently excellent leading ladies. At only 25-year-old, she’s now been nominated for her fourth Academy Award thanks to her captivating portrayal of Jo Marsh. Ronan has an uncanny likability and she plays her role with such a genuine passion for the characters. This wasn’t the most challenging role but she shifts gears with such seamless precision and wins you over with her unbridled enthusiasm. If it weren’t for Renée Zellwegger, Ronan would likely be the front runner for Best Actress but she’s still a live underdog.
Pugh also picked up an Oscar nod for Best Supporting Actress which is a bit surprising considering Meryl Streep has one of the other supporting roles and is excellent as usual. She should have gotten her first Academy Award nomination for her role in Lady Macbeth (2016) but probably got it here because the story really hinged on the relationships between the sisters and her portrayal of Amy hit all the right marks. Pugh is good as the annoying little sister who has a mean streak and gets on everyone’s nerves but really comes into her own as the character arc matures, once the blissful ignorance of youth is replaced by the disappointment of her unfulfilled dreams. She carries heavy emotion with a brooding intensity and it’s a trait that has served her well in all her roles. She’s unlikely to take home the trophy in a stacked category but she’s on the map now and first in line for my Performer of the Year award with three very good high-profile performances in 2019.
Chalamet has had a pretty solid year himself, and his portrayal of Laurie capitalized on many of his prior performances. This was a much more subtle portrayal than we’ve seen from him in Call Me By Your Name or Beautiful Boy but it was also his most well-rounded. He’s done well with emotional heavy lifting but this was a lighter, more arrogant character that allowed him to have some fun. He’s established himself as one of Hollywood’s finest young actors and we are going to be hearing his name for a long time to come.
While it’s not quite an ensemble, having a strong supporting cast beyond those three roles was important. Nobody knows that better than Francine Maisler and once she finally decides to hang it up, there should be an award named after her for the best achievement in casting. Her and Kathy Driscoll surrounded an exceptional group of young performers with consummate veterans in key supporting roles like Laura Dern, Chris Cooper and let’s not forget Meryl Streep…all of whom have extensive Oscar credibility. These three roles serve as the stabilizing forces surrounding the girls’ tumultuous journey. I’m kind of surprised we didn’t see Streep pick up an honorary nomination for her role as Aunt March but there’s only so many awards one person can have.
Because this story is heavily focused on class and gender roles, the clothing spoke volumes about each character. The wardrobes had to be meticulously crafted to fit both the character’s financial standing and their personality. It stands out most for Laurie, who’s rich but despises the upper class so his suits are much less formal compared to his grandfather. Fashion plays a fairly large role as there is more than one scene dedicated specifically to wardrobe concerns. Jacqueline Durran created some incredible outfits and with both this and 1917 under her belt in the same year, she’s going to take home the Academy Award for Best Costume Design one way or the other.
Since the Golden Globes, there’s been a lot of online chatter regarding the “snubbing” of Gerwig and now that the Academy has announced their nominations, sans Gerwig, that spark is sure to turn into an inferno. The criteria for Best Picture and Best Director should be fairly close and the list of nominees tends to line up more often than not but, since the Academy expanded the Best Picture category, there’s been an imbalance. She made a wonderful movie seemingly everyone enjoyed (including myself), was a financial success, and earned Oscar nominations for Best Picture and Best Adapted screenplay…she should be on that list. Don’t despair, Gerwig joined a more exclusive list of directors whose first two solo projects snagged Best Picture nominations, something none of the 2020 nominees accomplished.
For a while, I was torn because I felt Marielle Heller (A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood) and Lulu Wang (The Farwell) made more creative and original films than Little Women but didn’t even get half the credit they deserved. Ultimately, all three of them should be up for Best Director and it’s time the Academy expanded the field to ten nominees so all the best efforts can be recognized.
Recommendation: If you’re looking for something good during the doldrums of the new year, this is sure to hit the spot. It’s easily accessible for fans of source material and existing adaptations and it’s good for people like me who had no prior knowledge.