Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBBBB. USA, 2019. Columbia Pictures, Instinctual VFX, New Regency Pictures, Pascal Pictures, Regency Enterprises, Sony Pictures Entertainment. Screenplay by Greta Gerwig, based on the novel by Louisa May Alcott. Cinematography by Yorick Le Saux. Produced by Denise Di Novi, Amy Pascal, Robin Swicord. Music by Alexandre Desplat. Production Design by Jess Gonchor. Costume Design by Jacqueline Durran. Film Editing by Nick Houy. Academy Awards 2019. AFI Film of the Year 2019. Golden Globe Awards 2019. New York Film Critics Awards 2019. Philadelphia Film Critics Awards 2019. Washington Film Critics Awards 2019.
Writer-director Greta Gerwig shakes up earlier cinematic adaptations of Louisa May Alcott’s beloved story of four sisters growing up in Civil War-era Massachusetts, and completely restructures the familiar narrative in a risky move that pays off beautifully. Saoirse Ronan is superb as Jo March, the aspiring writer who shows up in New York City to pursue her career, meeting handsome, reticent Friedrich (Bhaer, his last name is avoided in this version thanks to French actor Louis Garrel portraying the usually Teutonic character), who loves her talent but disapproves of her writing. He believes there’s a more genuine voice she needs to release, and in flashbacks to her younger years growing up with sisters Meg (Emma Watson), Amy (Florence Pugh) and Beth (Eliza Scanlen), we learn all about the experiences and relationships that she will transform into the content of her enchanting writing: the rivalry with Amy, the frustration with Meg’s wanting to grow up and become a wife and mother and leave childhood behind, her adoration of shy Beth and her friendship with the neighbouring aristocrat’s grandson Laurie (Timothee Chalamet, brimming over with charm and indelible emotion), which everyone expects will eventually turn to marriage. Watching over them all with her caring and patient manner is their “Marmee” (Laura Dern), a woman trying to teach her girls to create a better world but also be worthy of respect in this one, while holding up the traditional and practical end is their sandpaper in human form Aunt March (Meryl Streep, Maggie Smithing it up with glee). Thanks to Gerwig’s primarily relaying these scenes as memories in the author’s mind, the film is not the picaresque collection of tales of mischief that previous adaptations have been but a look at the development of a writer, a kunstlerroman in place of a bildungsroman if you will, and giving importance to this aspect of Jo’s character gives the story a new vitality without removing its warmth or rich sentimentality. This is a film you feel deep inside your heart, it brims over with love, loss and discovery, and thanks to Ronan’s doing such fine work in taking up Gerwig’s exploration of the portrait of the artist, it also vibrates with the energy of her desires: her performance has Jo grasping for answers, her need to conquer her doubts about Laurie, her feelings about growing up, or her anxiety about releasing her talent, in direct contrast to Meg, who is at peace with her comparatively old-fashioned goals (and Watson, an uncomplicated actress whose performances generally see her settling for less than Ronan does, is used very well by the director to this aim). Shining brightest of them all, however, is Pugh, among the most bewitching portrayals of the character yet seen, not just giving us the delightful verbiage, the perpetual mispronunciations and the lofty goals for marrying wealth, but turning Amy into something of a trickster figure (she actually is that sad about being beaten by her teacher but she knows to cry outside Laurie’s window instead of her own). Gerwig wisely puts a great deal of her contextually clarifying dialogue (for the youngsters who don’t know much about the rules for being a woman in a man’s world at the time) into Amy’s mouth because she’s the one most likely to deliver lectures, and Pugh imbues her speeches with the sharp expertise that she has been bringing to lesser films since her breakthrough in Lady Macbeth. Beautifully photographed and exceptionally well designed by production designer Jess Gonchor and costume designer Jacqueline Durran, this film is a triumph in every possible way.