Little Women

December 25, 2019

in Movies

Film (2019)

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

With Saoirse Ronan (Jo March), Emma Watson (Meg March), Laura Dern (Marmee March), Florence Pugh (Amy March), Eliza Scanlen (Beth March), Timothée Chalamet (Theodore ‘Laurie’ Laurence), Tracy Letts (Mr. Dashwood), Bob Odenkirk (Father March), Chris Cooper (Mr. Laurence), Meryl Streep (Aunt March)

Saoirse Ronan as Jo March in 'Little Women'

Saoirse Ronan as Jo March
in “Little Women”
Image: Courtesy of Sony Pictures

A star-studded rendition of the timeless classic that, like its protagonist, eventually comes into its own.

The four March sisters, Jo (Saoirse Ronan), Meg (Emma Watson), Amy (Florence Pugh), and Beth (Eliza Scanlen) grow up in Concord, MA during the Civil War. Their father is away at the war and they fend for themselves the best they can under the wise guidance of their mother, Marmee (Laura Dern). Presiding at some distance is the wealthy and opinionated Aunt March (Meryl Streep), and nearby is Laurie (Timothée Chalamet), the boy next door who focuses the attentions of the daughters in various ways. Laurie’s wealthy grandfather Mr. Laurence (Chris Cooper) keeps his eyes on things as well. Each of the sisters pursues art, employment and relationship uniquely but Jo’s efforts as an aspiring writer provides the most drama, as one watches her skills develop under the attentive eyes of her family.

This lush film, released on Christmas, hobbles a bit out of the gate but comes into its own as it nears its final stretches. There are enough excellent actresses and actors to keep one’s head spinning and they are, to one extent or another, used pretty well. Outstanding, however, in the focal role of Jo, is Saoirse Ronan who gives it her all, and it’s her compelling energy at the core which makes the film particularly worthwhile.

Other performances are notable. Laura Dern is convincingly endearing as the mother and Meryl Streep is a scream as rich Aunt March. Streep’s role is just a hop skip and a jump away from that of Maggie Smith in Downton Abbey – both excellent actresses, they can convey sharpness and wit with a curl of the lip and the raising of a brow.

In smaller roles, Chris Cooper is perfectly endearing as Mr. Laurence, and, remarkably, Bob Odenkirk, otherwise seen as Saul in Better Call Saul and Breaking Bad, is a convincingly devoted father. Tracy Letts, as Jo’s publisher Mr. Dashwood, is abbreviated but hilarious.

Emma Watson is a very good actress, but not used to her full extent here, though her role warms up as the film winds on. She has typically played roles with a little more zip to them – certainly, her portrayal of Hermione in the Harry Potter series was zippier, but so was her performance in the wonderful coming of age film The Perks of Being a Wallflower (2012).

As Amy, the painter, Florence Pugh is radiant but a bit more buttoned down than one might expect and as Beth, the pianist, Eliza Scanlen is sympathetically vulnerable.

As Laurie, Timothée Chalamet is okay, but feels a little anachronistic (in one of its two senses) for the role, seeming more suited to a contemporary television situation comedy than a nineteenth century New England drama.

In general, the film is a bit on the starchy side in its first third, then develops more intensity and character as it evolves. It’s almost as though writer-director Greta Gerwig decided she was going to make a period drama and tensed up at first doing so and then relaxed as things went along. By the end, I was with it and felt moved, but it took awhile.

Gerwig’s revisioning of the novel involves a lot of switching between narrative elements that come from parts 1 and 2 of the book. At times the switching is not so obvious and it’s a bit hard to follow what’s happening when. In the end, one does, of course, figure it out, but the technique is only moderately successful.

The soundtrack by Alexandre Desplat is fine, but there’s too much of it. A little more restraint in that department would have been welcome. Settings, costumes, hair and so on all seem authentic enough.

Gerwig’s last film, Lady Bird (2017), was a mini-masterpiece. Its offbeatness and the fervor with which its central character, realized by Saoirse Ronan, defined herself, particularly in opposition to her mother, was noteworthy.

Little Women is not so universally compelling as Lady Bird through and through. But by the time it gets where it’s going it does have a power and authenticity akin to that earlier film, and Ronan’s exquisite intensity, and sometimes-ferocity, significantly helps it to get it there.

– BADMan (aka Charles Munitz)

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Eric Radack January 10, 2020 at 11:47 am

Thanks for another excellent BADMan review. A few points are worthy of mention. As you note, viewers of the film might be confused by the frequent use of flashback, were they not familiar with the text. I think that Gerwig’s frequent use of time-switching, is in essence, the first (post) modernist adaptation of the classic text that we have seen. As William Kentridge has recently commented, the modernist movement was one that chose to portray a fragmented reality through art; Joyce, Woolf, Picasso and Welles reflected this plastic relationship with time and space in their masterworks. I think Gerwig took the master text of Little Women and made free use of this license to fragment the narrative, leaping back and forth in the narrative time-line in a way that a 21st century audience would relate to, while still being anchored to the language and overall sense of the book. In the film, Gerwig acknowledges the modernist truth that to the viewer (or to the reader), the past. present and future within the narrative coexist in the imagination, and it is the mind of the viewer that creates a whole world out of shards of remembrance. Gerwig trusts her audience to knit this whole cloth from the threads and swatches that she furnishes. but it helps if one has read/reread the book within the past year or two!
As a side-note, the anachronism that you sense in Chalomet’s portrayal of Laurie, extends beyond his acting (and as you have noted– his choreography); the costumes were not strictly of the mid 19th century, despite having been inspired in part by depictions of woman in paintings by Winslow Homer, but were creatively anachronistic: an element of the film which supported the director’s subliminal goal of lifting the text from its historical foundation and emphasizing its timelessness.

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