Tuesday, January 7, 2020

Movie Review: Little Women

Little Women **** ½ / *****
Directed by: Greta Gerwig.
Written by: Greta Gerwig based on the novel by Louisa May Alcott.
Starring: Saoirse Ronan (Jo March), Emma Watson (Meg March), Timothée Chalamet (Theodore 'Laurie' Laurence), Florence Pugh (Amy March), Eliza Scanlen (Beth March), Laura Dern (Marmee March), Tracy Letts (Mr. Dashwood), Bob Odenkirk (Mr. March), James Norton (John Brooke), Louis Garrel (Friedrich Bhaer), Chris Cooper (Mr. Laurence), Jayne Houdyshell (Hannah), Meryl Streep (Aunt March), Maryann Plunkett (Mrs. Kirke), Hadley Robinson (Sallie Gardiner Moffatt), Charlotte Kinder (Viola), Ana Kayne (Olivia), Dash Barber (Fred Vaughn).
On the surface there is nothing all that daring about yet another version of Little Women. There have been two silent film adaptations, 1933 film with Katherine Hepburn, a 1949 film with June Allyson, a 1994 film with Winona Ryder and a contemporary film adaptation just two years ago. This is in addition to any number of television versions. You would be forgiven in thinking that there was nothing else today do with Louisa May Alcott’s novel in a film. And yet, despite all of that, Greta Gerwig’s new version still feels fresh and alive – and yes, even original. It is a film made for this moment, even as she sets it in the proper time period. It is a truly great adaptation – perhaps the best we’ve seen so far.
The biggest change that Gerwig made in her telling is to jumble up the storyline – to cut back and forth in time, from the time the March sisters were young teenagers, to a decade later, when they are all in their 20s. Some may find this is orienting or confusing, but I was never lost in the films timeline. I actually think it works amazingly well. Gerwig at times cuts back and forth in time to similar moments in Jo’s life – moments of similar emotional impact. At other times, the jumps are more intuitive. There is something European in Gerwig’s telling of this very American story – and it works to make everything feel fresher.
The story is still there. It is still about Jo (Saorise Ronan) and her quest to become a writer, while still feeling the pull of her family. Her older sister Meg (Emma Watson) is the most conventional of the sisters – the one who wants the simplest life (and as a result, is as usual, the dullest of the characters). There is the selfless Beth (Eliza Scanlen) – the only one who seems to really see beyond her own ambitions. And then there is Amy – played by Florence Pugh – who intuitively sees Jo as a rival, and wants whatever she has, while at the same time, still loves her – as Jo does with her. The movie is about the March family during the Civil War, as the father is off fighting for the Union, and Marmee (Laura Dern) struggles to hold them together. Laurie (Timothee Chalamet) is the rich kid from across the way – who falls for Jo, but really, falls for the entire March family.
The two performances that make the movie are by Ronan and Pugh. Ronan worked with Gerwig before in Lady Bird, and her Jo is similarly ambitious and talkative, while there is still an undercurrent of insecurity to her. She wants to be her own person – make her own way – but it’s a world in which that is nearly impossible for a woman. She gives a great, short, speech late in the film – where she lays out how she feels – how women should be valued for more than just their ability to be wives and mothers – and yet, also, is so incredibly lonely (an addition of Gerwig’s – which makes the whole scene). Her Jo is the most relatable, human, flawed Jo I can recall. She is matched by Pugh – who has the added task of having to play about 13 for part of the film (and does it convincingly, at least in terms of mannerisms, if not appearance). Her Amy is perhaps a little pettier than most – but also relatable in her desires. She doesn’t want to be second best – not anymore.
The filmmaking by Gerwig is impeccable. The costumes, the sets, Alexandre Desplat’s lush score, all of which are used to great effect here. But it really is her storytelling that makes the film truly special. It’s not just the way she jumbles the narrative, to give it more meaning, in less time, than others have done. It’s also in the way she ends the movie – an ending that acknowledges who unsatisfying, and yes, phony, the ending of the novel and the other adaptations has been. Gerwig finds a way to be faithful to the book – and still make her own feelings on the subject clear.
With Lady Bird, Gerwig firmly established herself as a filmmaker. That was a small film, but one that was so detailed in its writing and attention to performance, that it rose above the myriad of other films of its like that debut every year at Sundance. With Little Women, Gerwig shows that she can do the same thing on a larger scale – and take even the most well-trodden territory, and make it new again.

No comments:

Post a Comment