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Review: Little Women (2019)

Little Women (2019)

Directed by: Greta Gerwig

Premise: Based on the novel by Louisa May Alcott. Set in the Civil War era, four sisters grow up together and try to make their way in life, each of them aware of the constraints of being a woman in the nineteenth century.

What Works: Little Women is one of the most frequently adapted literary works and cinematic versions of this story go all the way back to the 1917 silent film and have been seen as recently as the modernized 2018 movie. Greta Gerwig’s 2019 version of Little Women distinguishes itself in several ways. Firstly, this film has a terrific cast. The movie is led by Saoirse Ronan as Jo, the tomboyish writer of the family, and Florence Pugh as Amy, an aspiring painter who places a premium on a wealthy marriage. The cast also includes Emma Watson as Meg, the sister who marries for love but lives in poverty, and Eliza Scanlen as Beth, the musically talented sibling. Little Women also features Timothée Chalamet as Laurie, the dashing boy next door, Chris Cooper as his father, Meryl Streep as Aunt March, and Laura Dern as Marmee. Everyone is perfectly cast and all of their performances blend; we have the sense that this cast had a unified understanding of the movie they were making. One of the effective aspects of Little Women’s performances is the way these people feel of their particular time period while also accessible and loose in a way that feels authentic. The movie is very funny and the sisters are often comedic in ways that come across contemporary but without dispelling the illusion of the time period. It’s a delicate mix of old and modern qualities that brings the film to life. This is also true of the production design and the filmmaking style. The sets and costumes have a vivid nineteenth century look and the characters inhabit the on-screen spaces. This version of Little Women is also distinguished by its innovations. Movie adaptations are interpretations; the filmmaker offers his or her view of what this story means. Little Women departs significantly from Alcott’s novel and invents a lot of new material. But this is done purposefully. Greta Gerwig’s Little Women is about these characters negotiating a world in which marriage and economics were inextricably intertwined and the movie reframes our romantic notions about period love stories. But Little Women is also a playful adaptation that adds to Alcott’s novel with a wink and a nod to the audience. This film uses Little Women to comment on the stories we tell about women and how we tell them; it verges on getting metatextual but not in an obnoxious way and the sly humor of the movie allows the point to be made clearly without getting didactic.

What Doesn’t: This version of Little Women strays greatly from the source material. That’s fine. Many great film adaptions like Jaws and The Godfather and 1931’s Frankenstein also took liberties with the source material. That said, viewers should understand this film as Greta Gerwig’s version of Little Women and those seeking a more faithful version of Alcott’s novel should look elsewhere. (And for them, there are plenty of options to choose from.) One of the stylistic choices of Gerwig’s Little Women is to tell the story out of sequence. The narrative hops backwards and forwards on the timeline. Once in a while it is difficult to tell where we are and a few of the transitions are not obvious.

Bottom Line: Little Women is a terrific movie and a smart new version of a frequently adapted book. Everything about Little Women—its cast, its production design, its story—is working together to support the filmmaker’s goals. It’s also a lot of fun while being subversive.

Episode: #784 (January 12, 2020)