Oscar Nominations 2020 – FILM REVIEW: Little Women (2019)

Dir: Greta Gerwig

Nominated for: Best Picture, Best Actress, Best Supporting Actress, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Original Score, Best Costume Design.

Score: ★★★★☆

After the success of Greta Gerwig’s 2017 debut feature Ladybird, the much hailed new director and long time offbeat comedy actress returns with her updated take on Louisa May Alcott’s 1868/1869 (it was originally published in two volumes) novel Little Women. The 7th adaptation of the novel (the fifth in the sound era) the book is the beloved tale of a quartet of sisters, their various trials and tribulations, growing pains, life paths and creation of their identities as women. Gerwig has assembled an all star cast that includes Saoirse Ronan, Emma Watson, Florence Pugh, Laura Dern, Timothee Chalamet, Meryl Streep and Chris Cooper for a thoroughly modern incarnation of the story that splices the narrative across different eras of the family’s life to make for brilliantly complex screenplay that draws parallels between events that happen in different parts of the story. I couldn’t even think where to begin to create such a screenplay and it must have been quite the creative challenge to piece together the redistributed puzzle of this family saga in a coherent way. For the most part it works, but the film is clearly the product of a director who knows these character’s intimately, there is a fondness and familiarity there that only someone who grew up loving these characters could create, and sometimes this borders on an over familiarity that hampers the film. Gerwig is so in love with these characters, and indeed is so close to them as if they were her own family (which is mostly a plus) she to some degree forgets to build up the necessary affection for these characters with the audience. There is a strange undercurrent to the film that, whilst Gerwig tells the story cleverly, and you don’t need a intimate knowledge of the book to follow it, it’s almost assumed the you will have a pre-existing intimate relationship or indeed love with and for the characters. As such in the early going of the film there is whiff of real self satisfied smugness about the production, especially via the performances.

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Rising stars Timothee Chalamet & Florence Pugh

Gerwig’s need to make this classic, and inevitably somewhat old fashioned tale relevant and modern does suffer from Gerwig unduly drawing attention to herself as a director (without justification) on a number of occasions using choices such as pronounced slow motion where it really is not a stylistic choice that serves the story. The film has something of a staccato rhythm.  It’s quite often the brilliantly written and brilliantly acted, but scenes tend to crash into each other. They often start very quickly by strangely delivering a few ‘casual lines’ of naturalistic dialogue, before abruptly launching full bore into (albeit wonderfully rendered) the emotional crux of key scenes without giving them room to breath first. It’s the cinematic equivalent of going 0 to 60 in 3 seconds. Outside of these criticisms however there is much to love here, aside from Emma Watson’s somewhat non existent presence, and Ronan and Pugh’s occasionally intolerable American accents the acting is above par. Obviously Meryl Streep and Chris Cooper deliver, but again (as in Ladybird) Gerwig casts Timothée Chalamet as the somewhat pathetic heartthrob of the story, which isn’t too much of a stretch for the over hyped new kid on the Hollywood block and Laura Dern is very strong as the matriarch of the family. Dern is having something of career moment and fast becoming the go to actress for the upper echelon of distinguished Hollywood directors, she earns her stripes for that position here effortlessly.

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All four March sisters.

Brilliant sets, costumes and cinematography, the film oozes class that rescues what might have otherwise been an overly sentimental, possibly even cheesy film and elevates it to the level of being one of the year’s best films. Some commentators have questioned why (especially when all the nominees are male) Gerwig didn’t get a best director nod. One article even opines “Does the Academy think Little Women directed itself”? A frankly ridiculous piece of logic that would mean all great films in history that were not singled out for best director honours  (of which there are a great many true greats that fall into this category) are rudderless ships created by ghosts. But putting that flawed complaint aside, this is indeed only Gerwig’s sophomore effort, and in the face of competition from master film makers like Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, Bong Joon-ho and Sam Mendes there is simply no comparison. Gerwig is a very good director and will one day be no doubt be a true great, but Ladybird was by no means earth shattering, a remarkable debut no doubt, that has been brilliantly followed up with this gorgeously and vividly crafted best picture nominee. However in reality Little Women has left Gerwig’s talent slightly stretched in comparison to her natural home turf of modern day mumblecore indie cinema.

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Ronan kneels for Chalamet.

The ambition is large on this one, and maybe it could have benefited from a Gerwig with a little more experience, or perhaps industry sway to increase the running time, which it seems would do wonders for this slightly rushed 135 minute epic. But the idea that Gerwig could reach the mastery of those aforementioned names in only her second attempt at film making is wishful thinking in the upmost. However when I say this I do note that Gerwig’s chops as a director are worth double that of the other nominee I haven’t named in the director category, Todd Phillips (for Joker), and so whilst she is nowhere near the top of this year’s field, she should easily be in there instead of Phillips. That would have made Gerwig a two time Best Director nominee ( which would have made her the only woman in history to achieve that). So whilst she can’t lay claim to a win this time, a second Best Director nomination would have been appropriate, and that’s pretty good going for someone only on their second film. Maybe the academy didn’t offer it this time, but she is two for two in my book.

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