Film Review – Little Women (2019)
Little Women (2019)
This is how you do it.
Film adaptations of classic pieces of literature are so common we all take them for granted. And in the case of some works like this one, it feels like there have been so many versions created at this point between various great film and television productions that initially hearing this is coming out may induce a big yawn in all of us. A new version of an old chestnut has to justify it’s existence. Well, in the case of the new film Little Women, director Greta Gerwig has more than fulfilled that criteria. This film is a textbook example of how to faithfully tackle well-worn material and yet still make it relevant enough to be a thoroughly entertaining watch. This new Little Women is nothing short of spectacular.
By now everyone likely knows the story. The 4 March sisters and their mother are left to their own devices during last part of the Civil War. Their father has gone to assist the Union Army leaving a house full of girls to fend for themselves financially in a world that isn’t always supportive of them. But through determination, imagination, and familial bonds that couldn’t be stronger, they persevere in a classic coming of age story. A major distinction this time around is that Gerwig tells the two major eras of the story simultaneously. The girls as teenagers are shown in flashbacks periodically during their story as adults. There are subtle visual cues that distinguish the two including their younger versions are often shot with more vibrant color almost as if the past is being viewed through rose colored glasses. But the cross cutting between the two times, while frequent, is always clear. It also informs the story more than just being a gimmick. In fact, at one of the emotional peaks of the movie the cuts back and forth are used specifically to inform what is going on in the present timeline.
The acting here is universally stunning. Saoirse Ronan is magnificent as Jo. Often seen as the starring character, Jo is both feisty and determined. She won’t be defined by being paired up with a fiancé which is usually seen as the only option for women at the time. Ronan conveys Jo’s intelligence and imagination. She is at times impetuous but also fiercely loyal to her family. Meanwhile, Emma Watson has really grown into her own as actress since her Harry Potter days. As Meg, the eldest sister, she has a great scene at a ball where she tries to act like an average teen girl for once and is slightly shamed for it. The stakes are real for this young woman largely due to Watson’s performance. Eliza Scanlen is demure and loving as the quiet Beth. Her storyline as an introvert who expresses herself through piano playing is touching. She reminds their elder neighbor Mr. Laurence (a soulful Chris Cooper under a heavy beard) of his deceased daughter and helps to fill a void he has strongly felt. Beth is the soul of the March home and Scanlen makes you fall in love with her. Florence Pugh is having quite a year on the heels of Midsommar with another star making turn here as Amy March. Amy is the most immature of the sisters. But even her flightiness and change of mood is entirely believable. In many ways Amy has the largest growth throughout the story. On a trip to Paris with Aunt March (the magnificent Meryl Streep vying for Dame Maggie Smith’s Downton Abbey title of delivering withering commentary through pursed lips), Amy is ostensibly there to pursue her painting talents. But through the course of her time there she does a lot of growing up.
Even the supporting roles here are terrific. Aside from the aforementioned Cooper and Streep, the rest of the cast is populated by familiar faces. A surprising Bob Odenkirk appears as their father. Though he doesn’t have much screen time, his presence is both heartfelt and soothing. Laura Dern as Marmee March, the mother of the house is outstanding as usual. Dern may be one of our most unsung actresses as she routinely provides grounding and emotion in most films in which she appears. Here, the love of her daughters buts up against her struggle to maintain a household as a single parent. Yet, though the March’s struggle financially, through Marmee’s example they still find the time to help the truly destitute with whatever they can spare. Veteran character actor Tracy Letts, fresh off playing Henry Ford in Ford v Ferrari, has a small part here as the publisher who reluctantly agrees to buy Jo’s stories. His few scenes are playful and smart. James Norton (notable star of Grantchester on Masterpiece Theatre) is the quietly charming schoolteacher with eyes for Meg. Yet likely the most notable support in the whole story is from Timothée Chalamet as Laurie. He is literally the boy next door who grows up with the March girls. In a way Laurie is in love with all of the March girls. He is their best friend. Often firting with each of them yet also genuine in his affection for their earnestness, Laurie is their perfect companion. He enjoys imagining with them or dancing with them or just being in the company of a house that is rooted in love. Chalamet is smart, but not cynical in the role. There is no ironic distance in this performance. The love he has for the Marchs pours off the screen.
The script here is faithful yet also contemporary. While the dialogue is of the period, it is delivered conversationally which is smart. This doesn’t feel stagy. However, Gerwig is able to work in some modern meta-commentary about the female world. Jo has a moving and important speech about how she wants to be her own woman but is desperately lonely as well. It feels like the internal monologue of so many women who want to be able to have a romantic life without having to subsume themselves to others. Similarly, there is some toying with Jo’s publisher and how the stories should work themselves out. While not breaking the fourth wall, the debates between the two of them about story content work as a commentary on the book Little Women itself. It is an amusingly adept way to point out story mechanics.
There have been many adaptations of Little Women over the years. Whether it’s the version from the 1930’s with Katherine Hepburn as Jo or the classic from the 1940’s or the stellar film from the 1990’s with Winona Ryder and Susan Sarandon, this story seems to speak to generations. The fact that there have been multiple stellar versions may indicate the solid greatness of the book itself. The understated feminism and core of familial love work as timeless themes. Yet this new film stands on it’s own. It is a truly great adaptation. If someone wanted to create a list of the all-time great films of classic literature which would likely include the Zefferelli Romeo and Juliet and the Olivier Wuthering Heights and the Emma Thompson penned Sense and Sensibility, this movie has the potential to join that pantheon. That may seem like hyperbole in the immediate afterglow of seeing a good movie. But this really is that good. Perfectly timed for Christmas, go see this movie.