Little Women (2019)

Reviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 12/26/19 16:05:46

"19th Century Women"
5 stars (Awesome)

When it was announced that Greta Gerwig would be following up her acclaimed directorial debut “Lady Bird” (2017) with a new adaptation of the Louisa May Alcott perennial “Little Women,” I must confess that I was a bit taken aback by the news. After all, after having come up with a first feature as distinct and unique as “Lady Bird”—one that managed to win over both critics and audiences to boot—why take the enormous amount of interest surrounding your followup project and do yet another version of a novel that had already graced the big screen numerous times in the past, quite wonderfully in a couple of cases (chiefly the 1933 version with Katherine Hepburn and the 1994 one with Winona Ryder)? Unless Gerwig could either figure out a way to make something personal and unique out of the old warhorse or, barring that, come up with the best screen version of the story to date, it just seemed like a curious choice for a project from someone had just demonstrated an almost fully-formed directorial vision with their first time at bat.

Well, in much the same way that Gerwig proved me wrong with “Lady Bird”—having always found her to be an irritating presence as an actress, the notion of seeing a film directed by her did not exactly inspire me with enthusiasm—she has managed to do it once again here. In this exquisite version of “Little Women,” she has managed to find a way to remain true and faithful to the book—a good thing since it is one of the truly great American novels—while at the same time something distinct and personal out of the familiar material, even improving on the only real faults of the original book. Through the combination of her undeniable filmmaking skill and the advent of one of the year’s strongest casts of top-flight actors, this “Little Women” is not just one of the very best films of the year but the best screen iteration of the story to date.

Because the idealist in me assumes that anyone reading these words is quite familiar with Alcott’s novel about the four March sisters passing from childhood to adulthood and experiencing everything from romance to tragedy over the span of a few years that begin near the end of the Civil War, I will forsake a rehashing of the plot details in order to focus on who is playing who this time around. Meg, the eldest sister and aspiring actress, is played by Emma Watson. The headstrong Jo, who is determined to avoid the expectations of society and make it on her own as a writer, is played by Saoirse Ronan, who was previously the lead in “Lady Bird.” Beth, who is sweet, shy, musically gifted and ultimately doomed, is played by relative newcomer Eliza Scanlen. Amy, the would-be artist who is the youngest and most self-absorbed of the sisters, is played by Florence Pugh. Marmee, their eternally good-hearted mother who tries to keep the family going while her husband is off at war, is played, almost inevitably, by Laura Dern. Theodore “Laurie” Laurence, the charming grandson of the March’s wealthy neighbor who falls in love with one sister but winds up marrying another, is played by Timothee Chalamet. (His grandfather is played by the great character actor Chris Cooper.) Friedrich Bhaer, the German professor who lives in the same boarding house where Jo resides at one point and who inspires her distaste when he gives her an honest critique of her stories, is played by Louis Garrel. Finally, no less of a figure than Meryl Streep herself turns up as Aunt March, a tart-tongued relation who is vaguely appalled with her relations, especially when it comes to Jo and her writerly ambitions.

So yes, with a cast like that, you could have a zucchini in charge and probably come up with a halfway decent version of “Little Women.” However, Gerwig is no zucchini and she has come up with an adaptation that finds new ways of approaching the admittedly familiar material so that even those who have known and loved it over the years will find themselves looking at it with fresh eyes. The first major change is a structural one that eschews the linear narrative of the book for one that starts off in the period covered in the second half of the book and then frequently flashes back to the material that occurred three years earlier that are seen almost entirely from Jo’s perspective. This is admittedly a bit disorienting at first but it actually makes a lot of sense because as Jo thinks back on these events, we can already see her beginning to sculpt them in her mind and transform them in what will truly become her story. Gerwig does another interesting thing by bringing an aspect of the story that is rarely examined in any detail to the forefront—the economics realities of being a young woman at that particular point in time. Throughout the film, we are constantly being reminded of how economic and gender issues are invariably entwined, from the casual way that an editor (Tracy Letts) gives Jo a lowball offer for one of her stories to Meg being goaded by well-to-do friends to purchase dress materials that she and her husband cannot afford to Florence explaining at length to Laurie about how marriage for a woman is as much an economic proposition as it is a romantic one. Gerwig doesn’t hammer home the point too hard but is an interesting angle that pays off beautifully at the end and lends a contemporary resonance to the material without messing with the story or its tone.

The best thing about Gerwig’s adaptation is that she has taken the two elements of Alcott’s book that never quite worked—the character of Amy in general and the out-of-place happy ending where Jo suddenly decides to marry Professor Bhaer—and figured out ways to make them click. In the book and in most of the other adaptations, Amy comes across as spoiled and selfish—especially when seen against the more self-sacrificing natures of her mother and sisters—and commits one act, the burning of the book Jo is writing that she does in a fit of pique, that is so beyond the pale that even when she does eventually evolve into a somewhat better person by the end, it feels as if she has once again managed to duck “out of the hard parts of life” and received a redemption that she doesn’t deserve. The book burning scene does appear in this version and it is just as shocking and painful as ever but by emphasizing Amy’s sincere desire to be an artist herself, it brings additional resonance to both the scene and her relationship with Jo, the sister whose artistic abilities flow a lot smoother than hers. As for her self-interest, it comes off here as her being more practical than anything else and the aforementioned scene in which she discusses the economics of marriage with Laurie brilliantly cuts to the core of what makes her tick. I have seen numerous adaptations of “Little Women” over the years but this is the first one that allows people to not only understand what makes Amy tick but makes them genuinely like her as well.

As for the story ending with Jo marrying the much older and somewhat unattractive Professor Bhaer, it has always been a letdown, not because Jo marries him instead of the seemingly more suitable Laurie but because the very idea of Jo marrying anyone comes across as a kind of betrayal of everything that the character stood for. As it happens, Alcott had no particular desire to marry Jo off either but when her publisher reportedly insisted that all the sisters been married or dead by the end, she was forced to agree but at least tried to subvert the notion by making Bhaer the man who marries her and not Laurie. This development has never been presented in a convincing manner, not in the original book nor in the subsequent adaptations (which tend to subvert Alcott’s own subversion by casting more conventionally handsome types like Rossano Brazzi and Gabriel Byrne in the part), and it has always stuck out like a sore thumb. Gerwig clearly didn’t care for Alcott’s ending either and offers up an alternative take that manages to deftly juggle both the ending that Alcott presented and the one that she might have delivered if she wasn’t pressured by her publisher. She pulls this off with great wit and deftness—the narrative practically goes meta at this point—but the real payoff comes not with the proposal but with Jo’s ultimate fulfillment as an writer, both artistically and in terms of making sure she is properly compensated for her work. Towards the end, there is a sequence that begins with Jo entering into contract negotiations with her publisher and ends with her watching as the first copy of her work is being bound. That may not sound like much but if there was a more triumphant moment in American cinema this past year, I do not recall it.

Gerwig also proves herself to be just as adept behind the camera as well. The trouble with a lot of period movies, especially ones based on well-known books, is that the filmmakers tend to go about them with an outsized sense of reverence. The scenes tend to be arranged with such meticulous care that it feels as if they have been filmed in a museum and everyone involved is too worried about spilling a drink or getting a tear in one of their elaborate costumes—there is never the sense you are watching real people wearing their actual clothes in their actual houses living their regular lives. Although beautifully produced and executed in all regards, Gerwig never fetishizes these elements and instead presents us with a vision of the story that never feels anything less than authentic. The story pretty much covers every note on the emotion scale, veering from heartbreaking tragedy to moments of glee, and Gerwig nails all of them. (There are even a couple of moments that inspired me to hope that Gerwig might one day tackle a musical.) In addition, she gets spectacular performances pretty much across the board from her entire cast—so many that it is almost impossible to single any of them out. As the sisters at the center, Ronan, Watson, Pugh and Scanlen do an extraordinary job of presenting the kind of sisterly bond that can veer from loving to loathing in an instant. As Aunt March and Jo’s publisher, Meryl Streep and Tracy Letts make the most of their brief appearances. However, if I had to pick one standout, it would probably be Laura Dern as Marmee for the way that she suggests the quiet level of despair hiding just beneath her normally cheerful and noble exterior and which comes out in one extraordinary scene in which she confess to Jo that she herself feels genuine anger on a daily basis.

“Little Women” is a truly wonderful adaptation of a truly wonderful book, one that even somehow makes the lovely 1994 version pale by comparison. This is a timeless narrative that has been carefully and cleverly adapted in a manner that honors Alcott’s original work while at the same finding a new edge to the proceedings that gives it a contemporary relevance that most films set today never quite manage to properly establish. Young or old, girl or boy, this is a story that everyone can enjoy and embrace in equal measure. It also confirms that “Lady Bird” was no fluke and that Greta Gerwig is one of the most exciting new filmmaking voices working today. I may have doubted the need for a new “Little Women” when I first heard about but based on the quality of her first two directional efforts, I for one cannot wait to see what she does next.

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