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Producers: Amy Pascal, Denise Di Novi and Robin Swicord   Director: Greta Gerwig   Screenplay: Greta Gerwig   Cast:  Saoirse Ronan, Emma Watson, Florence Pugh, Eliza Scanlen, Laura Dern, Timothée Chalamet, Meryl Streep, Chris Cooper, Tracy Letts, Bob Odenkirk, James Norton, Louis Garrel, Jayne Houdyshell   Distributor: Sony Entertaiment/Columbia Pictures

Grade:  A-

 Unlike many American classics, Louisa May Alcott’s beloved 1868 novel has been remarkably fortunate in its screen adaptations.  The 1949 MGM version directed by Mervyn LeRoy with June Allyson (and Elizabeth Taylor) is, as it were, the weak sister here, but George Cukor’s 1933 film with Katharine Hepburn remains outstanding, and Gillian Anderson’s 1994 remake with Winona Ryder holds up well.  Those two are now joined by Greta Gerwig’s well-nigh perfect adaptation, which captures the spirit of Alcott’s work with grace, affection and great good humor, while being both touching and a mite daring.

The “daring” part arises from Gerwig’s decision to tell the familiar story of would-be writer Jo March (Saoirse Ronan), her three sisters—down-to-earth Meg (Emma Watson), musically-inclined Beth (Eliza Scanlen) and precocious Amy (Florence Pugh)—and their devoted mother Marmee (Laura Dern) not in straightforward chronological order, but via shifting time frames—a device that could have a disorienting effect were her script, and Nick Hoy’s editing, less skillful.  As it is, the two manage to tie the various threads together so that nothing is lost, and the emotional high points stand out all the more strongly. 

Gerwig also draws a clear connection between Jo, the aspiring author who brings her sensationalist stories to the brusque publisher Dashwood (Tracy Letts, who’s quickly becoming an indispensable character actor) and Alcott herself.  The semi-autobiographical element of the narrative has rarely been so effectively conveyed. 

The Marches are, of course, longing for the return of the paterfamilias (Bob Odenkirk, unfortunately rather flat), who’s been injured while serving as a Union chaplain in the Civil War.  Not that they are entirely alone on their Concord homestead.  Their wealthy neighbor, the widower Mr. Laurence (Chris Cooper, as subtly controlled here as he is coarsely obvious in “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood”), consistently shows the family his support especially in times of crisis, and his grandson Theodore (Timothée Chalamet), affectionately called Laurie, becomes an integral part of the family unit, suitor to Jo, though—as quickly becomes clear—not precisely a welcome one as far as she’s concerned.

And then there’s the formidable Aunt March (Meryl Streep, in another of her take-no-prisoners supporting turns), the rich old lady who’s intent on securing good marriages for her nieces—good in the Jane Austen sense.  Her emphasis on their need to find rich husbands, of course—a point not so obliquely made as well by Dashwood in his editorial observations on Jo’s stories—is of course derailed first by Meg’s decision to wed for love—to impoverished schoolteacher  John Brooke (James Norton), Laurie’s erstwhile tutor, and then by unexpected choices made by both Jo and Amy despite her offers of sage advice—and foreign travel. 

One additional character must, of course, be mentioned: learned Friedrich Bhaer (Louis Garrel), whom Jo meets during her stay in a Boston rooming house.  He’s the figure most altered by Gerwig from Alcott’s portrayal, but it’s an entirely forgivable change.

There’s always been an underlying feminist slant to “Little Women,” of course, but Gerwig brings it to the fore, and Ronan, with her feisty performance, italicizes it.  In fact, it’s the females who dominate here.  Scanlen’s recessive quality reflects the poignant arc of Beth, and Watson’s role as a doting wife makes Meg agreeably domestic, but Pugh brings the sometimes irritating Amy pungently to life, both as a child and later as young woman dissatisfied with her own talent—and acutely conscious of not equaling her older sister.  Dern is almost as impressive as loving Marmee, who gets the opportunity to show her underlying steeliness even as she teaches her daughters the virtues of charity.

By contrast the males are for the most part rather bland.  Though Letts and Cooper are both effective in very different ways, Norton and Garrel fade into the background along with Odenkirk.  There is one exception to the rule—Chalamet, who embodies Laurie so completely, yet so unconventionally, in terms of both the character’s studied nonchalance and his desperate passion, that he very nearly steals the film. 

Gerwig’s film also scores in visual terms.  Jess Gonchor’s production design and Jacqueline Durran’s costumes are entirely convincing, and Yorick Le Saux’s cinematography captures it all without undue flourish or fuss.  Alexandre Desplat’s orchestral score might occasionally seem a bit much, but after all “Little Women” is a work of big emotions, and the music rises to the occasion when they erupt, while delicately underlining the quieter moments.

Some people might, of course, ask whether we needed another version of “Little Women.”  The answer is that perhaps every generation does in fact deserve a retelling of its own—and if so, Gerwig’s certainly does the present age proud.       


Producers: Sam Mendes, Pippa Harris, Jayne-Ann Tenggren, Callum McDougall and Brian Oliver   Director: Sam Mendes   Screenplay: Sam Mendes and Krysty Wilson-Cairns   Cast: George MacKay, Dean-Charles Chapman, Mark Strong, Andrew Scott, Richard Madden, Claire Duburcq, Colin Firth, Benedict Cumberbatch, Daniel Mays, Adrian Scarborough, Jamie Parker, Robert Maaser and Nabhan Rizwan   Distributor: Universal Pictures

Grade:  A

World War I has served as the backdrop for some extraordinary films in the past—Stanley Kubrick’s “Paths of Glory” (1957) remains the most notable, but Peter Jackson’s remarkable documentary of last year, “They Shall Not Grow Old,” is another.  Sam Mendes’ “1917” now joins their ranks.  Like Jackson’s film, it’s a technical marvel, constructed by the director, cinematographer Roger Deakins and editor Lee Smith to appear to have been shot as a single continuous take—a far more stunning and convincing example of rare “simulated tracking” than Hitchcock’s “Rope”—admittedly an early experiment, constrained by the technology of the time—was. 

Of course, visual virtuosity is not enough to make a film great, or even worth watching.  Fortunately, “1917” has dramatic power to match its exceptional technique.

The fictional narrative constructed by Mendes and Kristy Wilson-Cairns, inspired by stories told to the director by his grandfather, a veteran of the war, concentrates on a single episode occurring on April 6, 1917, after the Battle of the Somme had ended, inconclusively, in late 1916.  The German high command decided to withdraw to more defensible positions, the so-called Hindenburg Line, but the British misread the move as a retreat, and planned an offensive to take advantage of what they presumed would be disorder in the German ranks as they withdrew.  Were the British advance to occur, the troops would fall into a trap and be massacred.

Last-minute recognition of the danger leads to a desperate mission:  two lance corporals, Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and Scofield (George MacKay), are assigned by the commanding general (Colin Firth, in a brief cameo) to cross into No Man’s Land and make their way through still-contested territory to the British front lines to deliver a message ordering a halt to the planned attack.  The urgency is accentuated by the fact that Blake’s older brother (Richard Madden) is among the officers leading the charge that could end in disaster.

From this point the film becomes an episodic account of their journey, the initially showing their rushed progress through the crowded trenches to the point where they can hoist themselves, gingerly, onto the battlefield, still uncertain about whether a withering blast of artillery might meet them.  They first cross the desolate No Man’s Land, presented in Dennis Gassner’s production design as a wasteland pockmarked by decaying corpses and shards of equipment, and then proceed through broader German trenches that have been abandoned, but where, as soon becomes apparent, dangers still lurk.

As Deakins’ camera prowls behind them, capturing their every move and occasionally showing the fear and concern on their faces, the two men continue into still-contested territory, where they periodically interact with others.  They happen upon a deserted farm, where they observe from a distance a dogfight that sends a German plane, billowing smoke, in their direction, and an encounter with its wounded pilot (Robert Maaser).  There follows a linking up with a bedraggled British brigade led by an officer (Mark Strong) who provides as much help as he can (and whose men offer their commiserations) before an episode in a half-destroyed town, where German soldiers have overlooked a young French woman (Claire Duburcq) hiding in a basement with an infant.

The mission continues into ever more dangerous terrain, until the presence of the British forces is disclosed by an unusual occurrence that might call to mind the very end of Kubrick’s masterpiece, signaling a brief return to civilization in the midst of the war’s brutality.  The message is finally delivered to the commanding officer (Benedict Cumberbatch, in another cameo), but the outcome is bittersweet at best. 

Throughout MacKay, with his long-faced determination, and Chapman, with his more boyishly ebullient personality, offer performances that are compellingly focused, and under Mendes’ direction the supporting cast, including the well-known cameo performers, contribute sharp turns.  Their efforts are complemented by the exceptional technical work.  Deakins’ camerawork, with its serpentine moves, takes pride of place, but Gassner’s production design, the costumes of Jacqueline Durran and David Crossman, and Smith’s smooth editing are no less impressive, while Thomas Newman bolsters the action with a supportive but not overbearing score.

A century on, World War I has recently received a slight revival of attention—through Jackson’s film, Saul Dibb’s fine, if somewhat workmanlike, 2018 remake of “Journey’s End,” and some excellent television documentaries.  “1917” represents a uniquely powerful take on the carnage of the Great War: while some might chide Mendes embrace of the one-take technique as gimmicky, it serves—like Peter Jackson’s remarkable restoration of archival footage—to provide a viscerally potent view of a conflict often relegated to the mists of history.