A film review by Craig J. Koban January 6, 2020

LITTLE WOMEN  jjj

2019, PG-13, 135 mins.

 

Saoirse Ronan as Josephine "Jo" March  /  Emma Watson as Margaret "Meg" March  /  Florence Pugh as Amy March  /  Eliza Scanlen as Elizabeth "Beth" March  /  Laura Dern as Margaret "Marmee" March  /  Meryl Streep as Aunt Josephine March  /  Timothée Chalamet as Theodore "Laurie" Laurence  /  James Norton as John Brooke  /  Louis Garrel as Friedrich Bhaer  /  Bob Odenkirk as Mr. March  /  Chris Cooper as Mr. Laurence  /  Abby Quinn as Annie Moffat  /  Hadley Robinson as Sallie Gardiner Moffatt  /  Jayne Houdyshell as Hannah  /  Meryl Streep as Aunt March  /  Tracy Letts as Mr. Dashwood

Written and directed by Greta Gerwig, based on the novel by Louisa May Alcott

Louisa May Alcott's 19th Century coming of age novel LITTLE WOMEN is so deeply entrenched in the hearts and minds of literary scholars and fans that any attempt by Hollywood to adapt it faces a couple of obvious challenges.  

Firstly, some would accurately say that you have to be faithful to the source material in order to not offend the purists.  Secondly, one has to impart some level of newfound creative zeal in the material and somehow and someway make it feel fresh to contemporary audiences (and all while not alienating the legions and generations of devotees of the source material).  LITTLE WOMEN, to be fair, has been adapted multiple times (with arguably the most well known being the 1994 iteration), which left me in a precarious place in terms of how much desire I had to see yet another retelling of the 1868 published work. 

Enter writer/director Greta Gerwig, who previously made one of the most auspicious directorial debuts of recent memory with her 2017 effort LADY BIRD (which placed very high on my list of the best films of that year).  A marriage of Alcott and Gerwig seems like a match made in proverbial heaven as far as adaptations go, and one thing that the actress turned filmmaker imparts in her version of LITTLE WOMEN is an obvious passion for the novel, but an undeniable willingness on her part to creatively shake things up (quite a bit, actually) to make her version stand apart from all others.  One of the best things I can say about this LITTLE WOMEN is that it's uniquely unlike just about any other silver screen incarnation of the book.  However, one of the more nagging issues with this LITTLE WOMEN is that Gerwig's unorthodox approach to the underlining material may run the risk of turning off huge followers of the immoral text.  I certainly admired the courage of Gerwig's staunchly deconstructivist take on the revered novel, but I can certainly appreciate how it might upset some fans.  Regardless, the film remains a handsomely produced period drama that features an embarrassment of performance riches throughout. 

Right from the very get-go it becomes abundantly clear that this is not a typical retelling of LITTLE WOMEN.  Instead of crafting a slavishly faithful telling of the novel's story in pure chronological order, Gerwig has opted to radically shift gears by rebuilding the narrative in a non-linear fashion via a series of ongoing flashbacks and flashforwards.  She's not engaging in a hatchet job (in my estimation) of Alcott's work, but instead seems to be throwing in all of the novel's plot threads and ingredients into a mixing bowl, stirring them up, and dishing out a whole new take on this well worn tale.  It's a sly, somewhat subversive, but nevertheless compassionately rendered version of LITTLE WOMEN, and one that I think pays tribute to the overarching essence of the novel while evolving it to avoid cinematic staleness.  Gerwig plays very fast and loose with time, oftentimes cutting back and forth between the titular characters' adult and childhoods, sometimes fluidly, whereas sometimes distractingly.  The overall structure of this film version most definitely has a spark of innovation that any new iteration of Alcott's work should have for modern consumption, but sometimes Gerwig's choices here are a bit too editorially chaotic and free-wheeling for their own good.  Diehards of the novel shouldn't have any issues here, but for audience members (like yours truly) that haven't read the book in a long time might get confused with what's happening when and where from time to time. 

 

 

The core of this LITTLE WOMEN remains the same, though, in chronicling the five divergent personalities that make up the children of the March family.  The clan's father is off serving a tour of duty in the Civil War, leaving the mother, Marmee (Laura Dern) having to tend to the needs of their four daughters: Jo (Saoirse Ronan), Meg (Emma Watson), Beth (Eliza Scalen) and Amy (Florence Pugh).  Jo is the joyously uninhibited spirit of the group, who often pours her thoughts and imagination down on paper, hoping to someday be a writer.  Meg seems most concerned with finding a husband and securing a future.  Beth is musically inclined and gifted, yet is the shy and introverted sister of the group.  And the youngest sibling in Amy seems to be constantly pining for attention and acceptance of anyone.  Living next door to the young girls is Laurie (Timothy Chalamet), a well off lad that seems like perfect suitor material for any of the March sisters, but he seems constantly drawn to Jo.  As the years go by we witness these people mature and evolve, sometimes together, and sometimes apart, but their inseparable bond of intimate sisterhood gets them through the darkest of times. 

Visually, LITTLE WOMEN is as gorgeously executed of a period film as you're likely to find in the year that was.  The sumptuous costume designs, astutely concocted era-specific decor, and the richly envisioned production design as a whole all work in concert together to make Gerwig's adaptation feel positively alive.  Complimenting the film's wonderful look is Gerwig's intense sensitivity to the individual storylines and themes of the source material while somehow critiquing some of Alcott's more archaic ideas of a women's place in society.  This is chiefly executed in the character of Jo, who's easily the most strongly independent minded figure of the family that has a tricky arc in this film of having romantic yearnings for Laurie, but not falling complete victim to them when she thinks it might impede her potential career as a writer.  There's some obvious feminist revisionism at play here, which some could argue is perhaps a bit anachronistic, but I never found that it betrayed the historical veracity of the time period in question.  Jo is a persona here that fundamentally understands how women are being placed to the sidelines when it comes to societal expectations of them, but she courageously tries to elevate herself above such stigmas.  In this LITTLE WOMEN she doesn't want to be defined by the man she's with, but rather by what she can do on her own.  The 1860's setting of this film has an unquestionable veracity, but Gerwig manages to inject in her characters a headstrong desire for change and acceptance that feels of our time.  That's a tricky dichotomy to pull off effectively; this LITTLE WOMEN is true to its 19th Century origins while feeling modern all the same. 

The ensemble cast here as well is superb, especially Ronan, one of our finest actresses and one that, in my mind, has never given a false beat performance in her career.  This is true for her work as Jo, and the actress manages to capture the aura of a women that thinks like one from today, but still feels suffocated by the backward minded norms of her era.  I also greatly admired the equally committed work by Pugh (on such a tremendous role this year after her work in FIGHTING WITH MY FAMILY and MIDSOMMAR), who manages to provide hidden depths and layers to a character that would be awfully easy to dislike with any other actress.  The men in the film are solid too, especially the great Chris Cooper playing a soulful and lonely father to Chalamet's Laurie, who finds himself emotionally bonding to the March women as a form of therapy for his own lost family members. And the always stellar Tracy Letts, as he demonstrated in FORD V FERRARI, proves that a little bit of him in any movie goes an awfully long way, in this instance inhabiting a small, but crucially memorable role playing a soft spoken, but cheekily sardonic editor to Jo's writer.   

In the end, though, one's appreciation of what Gerwig has accomplished here will ultimately depend on one's acceptance of her creative choices.  Some (like myself) will admire her daringness to juggle Alcott's novel up in clever and decisive ways, whereas others steadfastly loyal to the story on the page may come out crying a resounding foul.  It's really tough for me to call, and that's why I'm finding it hard to give this LITTLE WOMEN a higher star rating (even though my heart wants to).  I wasn't so much bothered by Gerwig's approach to the material in terms of its non-linear storytelling and infusion of contemporary feminist ideals as much as I was with the overall cadence and flow of the whole piece (those that have never read LITTLE WOMEN may feel like this film version requires a roadmap at times to make sense of everything unfolding).  As an experimental adaptation of one of the most cherished and well known novels of the last century and a half, Gerwig certainly deserves all the credit in the world for dreaming big and not letting anyone hold her back from her vision...kind of like Jo, in a way. 

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