Director: Greta Gerwig
Writers: Greta Gerwig, Louisa May Alcott (based on the novel by)
Starring: Saoirse Ronan, Emma Watson, Florence Pugh
Runtime: 135 mins
MPAA Rating: PG
Believe it or not, I have read Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women (1868) as well as the two sequels Little Men (1871) and Jo’s Boys (1886). Thus, my interest was piqued when I found out that Greta Gerwig, who revealed her sharp writing and directing talent in her much-heralded feature-length debut Ladybird in 2017, was directing and adapting a screenplay for the novel. Little Women was published in two parts in 1868 and 1869. The story opens at the beginning of the second part in 1868 (the “present”) and uses flashbacks to communicate all events that happen in the first part starting seven years earlier. Across these two different timelines, the story follows the lives of the March family consisting of the daughters (in order of age) Meg (Emma Watson), Jo (Saoirse Ronan), Amy (Florence Pugh), and Beth (Eliza Scanlen) and their mother ‘Marmee” (Laura Dern). Drawn away by the distant Civil War, their father (Bob Odenkirk) is absent from their Massachusetts home for most of the story, and the girls, refined yet living in borderline poverty, are forced to deal with life’s travails largely on their own. The economic solution prescribed by their affluent Aunt Josephine (Meryl Streep) is for each of the girls to simply marry a rich man. Consequently, gentlemen suitors factor into their lives, most notably Laurie (Timothée Chalamet) the son of their wealthy neighbor and benefactor Mr. Laurence (Chris Cooper). From there, you get Christmas, dancing, sisters bonding, sisters fighting, illness…and it is all a joy to watch.
Considering the story features so many different characters, you might be wondering if there are too many personalities fighting for screentime. Fortunately, this is not the case. Little Women is an intelligently written book and every character serves a necessary purpose to the story. Every scene is meaningful whether it be for establishment of a setting, character development, or reinforcement of a theme or mood. The dynamics between the sisters is the centerpiece of the movie for the first two acts while the third act hones in on Jo’s conflicts and ambitions and how she ultimately chooses her path in life. As in the novel, the tomboyish, free-spirited, and stubborn Jo is absolutely the main character and is played to perfection by Ronan. She realistically fleshes out a girl taking pride in her independence who does not nicely fit into the mold of what a late-1800s woman is expected to be. Jo coming to terms with what she values most as she grows up and how that affects her choices with regards to family, career, and romance is actually fascinating to watch because of how honestly written the character is; in the book, Jo is in fact a direct reflection of Alcott herself. All of the performances are superb but Ronan stands out.
Technically, I really enjoyed the production design, particularly the costumes, hair styling, and makeup. Each of the girls is consistently color-coded for the most part which gives a subtle visual reinforcement of each of their personalities. I previously mentioned the frequent switches between past and present via flashbacks, and it is fairly easy to distinguish since the girls’ hair styles and age makeup are distinct between the two time periods. Additionally, smart natural lighting choices enrich the historical settings; indoor nighttime scenes are appropriately dark, and outdoor daytime scenes are appropriately vibrant. In both the elaborate and rustic locations, the mise-en-scène ties together the presentation as a period piece, and, consequently, the entire film is a pleasant visual experience.
My only major issue with this movie is the pacing in the first act. There is rapid editing throughout the early March family interactions which feels a bit jarring as the story tries to get off the ground quickly. If you are familiar with my reviews, you know I rarely advocate for longer runtimes, but I wish some of the earlier scenes had a chance to breath a bit more. The editing in this section did not feel like an intentional stylistic decision, but, rather, a practical way to cut down the runtime. The adapted screenplay is phenomenal, but I am not sure how much credit should be attributed to Gerwig’s writing versus the quality of the underlying source material. However, I think in the hands of a lesser filmmaker, this story turns into a snorefest real fast. Though there were quite a few more striking shots than in Ladybird, I thought the overall direction was fairly bland; this disappointment is not a large detractor for this movie, just an area I would like to see Gerwig be more creative with in the future. Finally, this movie ends with much more ambiguity than the book, and I am not really sure that it is a necessary deviation; once again, not a detractor but something worth mentioning.
Little Women is one of 2019’s best offerings, and I think every person can glean something from the story. Unfortunately, younger boys and emotionally superficial people will probably be bored by this movie…their loss. This movie is a trove of actually well-written female characters which is becoming increasingly rare in cinema. I highly recommend it, and I am once again looking forward to what Greta Gerwig will do next.
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