Review: Little Women (2019)

Year: 2019
Runtime: 135 minutes
Director: Greta Gerwig
Writer: Greta Gerwig
Stars: Saoirse Ronan, Florence Pugh, Emma Watson, Eliza Scanlan, Timothée Chalamet, Laura Dern, Meryl Streep

By Nicole Ackman

It’s not an easy task to adapt one of the most famous American novels of all time for the screen. Not only has Louisa May Alcott’s “Little Women” been beloved since it was first published in 1868, it has also had several well-regarded film adaptations before, starring actresses like Katharine Hepburn and Winona Ryder. And yet, if anyone was going to take on this mammoth task, Greta Gerwig seems like the perfect person. Gerwig broke onto the directing scene in 2017 with her first film, “Lady Bird,” a coming-of-age story starring Saoirse Ronan. She returns this year with one of the most iconic female coming-of-age stories of all time, “Little Women,” refreshed and updated for a modern audience without losing any of the spirit of the book — and once again starring Saoirse Ronan. 

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Saoirse Ronan in Little Women (2019) © 2019 CTMG, Inc.

As someone who has read the book countless times and thought of Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy as much my childhood friends as any of my school classmates, I was nervous about this new and reportedly innovative adaptation. When any quintessential piece of literature is adapted for a film, there is a risk that those who love the book might find it misses the point of the story, messes up the characters, or lacks the feel of the novel they love so much. Luckily, it seems that Gerwig loves and respects Alcott’s work as much as any of the rest of us and she has created an adaptation that is sure to delight lovers of the novel while also enchanting audiences new to the March sisters. 

“Little Women,” refreshed and updated for a modern audience without losing any of the spirit of the book — and once again starring Saoirse Ronan. 

“Little Women” tells the story of four sisters, Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy, growing up in Massachusetts during the Civil War and the years following it. Meg wants a family and a fine house of her own, Jo wants to be a writer, Beth merely wants everyone to be happy, and Amy wants to be a painter. They are close to their mother, Marmee, and their father who is away serving in the war and eagerly befriend the boy next door, Laurie. 

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Emma Watson, Saoirse Ronan, Florence Pugh, and Eliza Scanlen in Little Women (2019) © 2019 CTMG, Inc.

Gerwig’s greatest departure from past adaptations is that she tells the story out of chronological order. The film jumps in halfway through, with Jo in New York attempting to get her writing published and Amy in Paris studying art. The earlier years are seen through flashback, arranged by theme to match up with events in the second half of the timeline. It’s an approach that might take a little while to get used to, but once the audience does, it’s clear that putting certain scenes next to each other increases their emotional impact. These flashbacks are warmer, and more brightly lit, as opposed to the bluish tones of the current timeline, in a clever move that both helps the audience keep track of where they are and also reflects on the way that we look back upon a happy childhood. (Tip: the way that the girls’ hair is styled is another good way to tell where you are in the timeline.) 

The film is expertly cast with an ensemble that seems absolutely believable as a family. Jo March is a role that Saoirse Ronan seems born to play. Her Jo is passionate and fiery and vulnerable, but also stubborn, hot-tempered, and cocky.

It isn’t just the chronology that sets this adaptation apart; Gerwig focuses more equally on each of the four sisters than most adaptations. While Jo is clearly at the heart of the story, the film dedicates time to each of the girls. All four of them feel fleshed out and three dimensional, as do Marmee, Laurie, and the other people surrounding them. The film nails down the chaos of a family, especially one with many children, as the girls continually talk over one another and scrapple. If there was an award solely for blocking, Gerwig surely would win it as every person manages to be perfectly in tandem with each other. 

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Emma Watson, Saoirse Ronan, and Florence Pugh in Little Women (2019) © 2019 CTMG, Inc.

Gerwig has also made an effort to connect the film to Louisa May Alcott’s life; “Little Women” is a semi-autobiographical novel with the March family based upon Alcott’s own family. (Louisa herself is reflected in the character of Jo.) Gerwig and the cast researched the Alcotts and read many of their letters (some lines not from the novel directly are from Alcott family letters). The production design team recreated the Alcott family home in Concord, Massachusetts to be the March family home. All of the sets in this film are truly stunning and one of the most brilliant and telling moments of the film is in a shift from Meg and her husband’s modest cottage to Amy’s lavish art studio in Paris. 

In adapting the text, Gerwig took large amounts of dialogue straight from the novel but made them feel fresh and modern. While things must always be cut out of a novel and especially one as long as “Little Women,” all of the iconic details are there from Jo’s ink-stained fingers to Amy’s limes. It seems that perhaps this story is a very personal one to Gerwig. Not only has she spoken about growing up on the novel herself, but it’s easy to see her own struggles as a female writer in Hollywood in Jo’s drive to be a writer, the sexism she faces, and her difficulties pitching to editors and being turned down. In fact, the scenes depicting Jo’s creative process are some of the best in the film. 

The film is expertly cast with an ensemble that seems absolutely believable as a family. Jo March is a role that Saoirse Ronan seems born to play. Her Jo is passionate and fiery and vulnerable, but also stubborn, hot-tempered, and cocky. She makes Jo feel very real and easily brings the audience to tears both with her sadness over her sister’s illness and her frustration with what the world has to offer women. Emma Watson is splendid as Meg March, a character who finally gets her due after many adaptations. Watson presides over the bunch as the motherly eldest sister, but especially shines in her scenes with James Norton, who brings a charm and appeal to John Brooke. Meg is the only one of the daughters who remembers what it was like when the family had money and Watson perfectly portrays her longing for the finer things of life. 

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Emma Watson in Little Women (2019) © 2019 CTMG, Inc.

Eliza Scanlen is a great fit for sweet Beth, the shy sister content to stay home and play her piano. She manages to portray Beth as delicate and angelic, but also down-to-earth and a grounding presence to the other three. It’s hard to deny that Florence Pugh’s Amy is one of the best things about this film. Because of her young age at the beginning of the story, Amy March is often played by two actresses; somehow Pugh genuinely seems like a spoiled preteen girls in some scenes and a refined lady in others, while also preserving a sense of continuity in her characterization. Amy is one of the most hated characters in literature and somehow Pugh and Gerwig make her likable. 

On top of being expertly written and acted, the film is gorgeous to look at. The cinematography is lovely, with vignettes often created that seem appropriate for a film largely based around memory.

Marmee, the March girls’ mother, is at the heart of the film and Laura Dern is perfect casting. Her Marmee is so nuanced and clearly pulls from Abigail Alcott, as well as her counterpart in the book. Gerwig deepens Marmee’s character, allowing us a closer look at a woman who is attempting to raise four young girls while her husband is away and is often angry and frustrated with the hand life has dealt her. Meanwhile, Meryl Streep is hilarious and quippy in her few scenes as grouchy Aunt March, bringing laughs to the audience. 

The male characters of “Little Women” are some of the best I remember reading in my childhood because they admire and uplift the women around them. Louis Garrel is dreamy as the intriguing Professor Bhaer. Bob Odenkirk imbues Mr. March with a lingering sadness behind his jovial nature that hints that he is all too aware of the time that he lost with his children while he was serving his country. Chris Cooper plays Mr. Laurence, Laurie’s grandfather who becomes fond of the girls, and his performance is quiet but impactful as a man who has known much sorrow in his life. 

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Saoirse Ronan and Timothée Chalamet in Little Women (2019) © 2019 CTMG, Inc.

Only rarely are there two actors who have the sort of chemistry that Ronan and Timothée Chalamet share. The way in which they seem to function as two parts of one whole, able to predict each other’s next movement, is perfect for the roles of Jo and Laurie. Chalamet’s charisma and looks easily fit the bill of the rich but lonely young boy next door who joins in on the March family’s shenanigans. He also has great chemistry with Pugh and has several touching scenes with Dern. Whether he is playing the eager and friendly boy of the flashbacks or the delinquent man he becomes, Chalamet brings something to the role that makes it feel like Laurie has walked right off the page. 

The male characters of “Little Women” are some of the best I remember reading in my childhood because they admire and uplift the women around them.

On top of being expertly written and acted, the film is gorgeous to look at. The cinematography is lovely, with vignettes often created that seem appropriate for a film largely based around memory. The costuming by Jacqueline Durran is gorgeous, from the older Amy’s beautiful dresses to the girls’ childhood ensembles. The choice to have Jo dressed in menswear inspired pieces for much of the time, while Laurie is often in feminine frilled shirts is inspired. Alexandre Desplat’s score is stunning, at times energetic and at times haunting, and complements the film nicely. 

While there have been other adaptations before, Gerwig’s feels definitive. It has all the coziness and warmth one expects from this sort of nostalgic period drama, while also capturing the revolutionary spirit of Alcott’s novel. She pulled Alcott herself into the film in a way that has never been done before. The whole venture feels fresh and exciting and it’s hard to fathom that this is only the second film that Gerwig has directed as the craft is so exquisite. Whether you have loved the book since childhood or are just meeting the March family, “Little Women” is the perfect film to see this holiday season. 

5 stars

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