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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.