Little Women (2019)

It’s Christmas!  Or it was recently.  And that meant some Christmas movies.  And that has meant more trips to the cinema.  And the other day, that meant going to see Little Women.

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Sometime in the 1990’s, I had a brief period of diving into the world of Little Women.  I read the book by Louisa May Alcott, and in a short period of time I rented and watched three separate film versions–from 1933 starring Katharine Hepburn, 1949 starring June Allyson, and 1994 starring Winona Ryder.  I’ve revisited the 1994 version a few times and I have a lot of appreciation for it.  But last night’s version, directed by Greta Gerwig and starring Saoirse Ronan, was something different, something special.

Some spoilers, if that’s something you are concerned about.

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The movie takes a different approach to the story, starting with the first time Jo March sells a story to a magazine while she’s already living in New York, and proceeding from there.  Apparently, my younger children were worried the movie was just going to ignore all the story’s earlier events, but I (savvier movie-goer that I am) was sure we were eventually going to circle around back there.

And so we did, in a series of increasingly frequent flashbacks that were dotted throughout the film’s “present” events. It occurs to me that for those completely unfamiliar with Little Women, it might be a bit confusing to see it laid out like this.  But as I said, I am not one of those people, and I really enjoyed the fresh take and the way it brought out meaningful narrative and emotional connections with different points in the life of the March sisters.  For example, the story of Beth’s first bout with scarlet fever is paralleled with her final sickness, years later.  This is an obvious link to make but it’s highly effective.

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The non-linear structure of the film is just one of the tools that Greta Gerwig uses to bring a sublimely moving quality to the presentation.  The camerawork is not flashy, but crafts many beautiful images which add to the character, plot and tone of the film.  The editing is at just the right pace–knowing when to hasten the action and when to slow it down.  Indeed, Gerwig demonstrates a phenomenal touch as a director all the way through, drawing out the power and potential in the performances and the staging of the story all the way through, and only rarely taking away from things by being too heavy as a storyteller.

Saoirse Ronan does an outstanding job as Jo March, expertly balancing her brightness, her wit, her headstrong stubbornness and her impulsiveness, and wrapping them all up in a completely compelling character.  She’s surrounded by lots of other talented people as well, including Emma Watson as Meg, Florence Pugh as Amy, and Eliza Scanlen as Beth. Laura Dern brings a touching and vulnerable performance as Marmee, and Timothée Chalamet plays Laurie in a way that highlights the blend of his charm and his emotional immaturity as well as I have ever seen anyone do.  Add to that people like Chris Cooper in a memorable turn as Mr. Laurence as Meryl Streep (!) as Aunt March, and there is very little for anyone to complain about here.

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These actors bring so many lovely and dynamic relationships to life.  The sisters, of course, are fascinating, and I love the way they all talk on top of each other, with much of their famous dialogue just being flung out for the audience to catch, in much the way you would if you hearing real siblings talk.  Beyond that, Mr. Laurence and Beth have a touching relationship, and even Meg and her husband John (James Norton) are given more interaction than any other version I’ve seen.  The interplay between Amy and Laurie highlights how important it is to have people who speak truth into your life, as does that between Jo and Professor Bhaer.

In crafting this version of the story, Gerwig obviously has a bit of a point to make, and most of the time she manages to do so in a way that is fully and comfortably layered into the story.  Various speeches, not in the book, are added to the script about the limitations that are upon a woman in the society of the story–particularly the expectation that they should marry, and the lack of options available to them if they don’t.  We hear about this from different points of view from Jo, Aunt March, and maybe most memorably, Amy.  It adds a layer of depth to all that is going on, without taking away from the central narrative.

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However, at the end, the movie pulls out a little trick that I wasn’t crazy about.  The sequence in which Jo comes to realize that she loves Professor Bhaer is turned into a bit of a madcap romantic comedy climax, complete with screaming siblings madly racing to get Jo to the train station before her true love leaves forever.  But then, suddenly, we see that this is also something that is basically happening within the book that Jo has written (also called “Little Women”), and is indeed an ending that she is adding at the insistence of her publisher.  From there, the movie moves to a conclusion in which the domestic ending inspired by the actual novel is treated as a bit of a fantasy next to a “real” ending in which Jo watches her novel being published, with a deep sense of satisfaction in her eyes.

The impression one gets from this is that Gerwig doesn’t have much use for the romance between Jo and Bhaer, and could only treat it with far less authenticity that everything else in the movie has shown.  And then along with that, that there is some sort of necessary divide between Jo finding her future in her family and Jo finding herself as an author.  I found this whole gimmick to be distracting from the story that up until that point had been so completely captivating for me.

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But, having said that, I’m okay to admit that this is a case of me not liking something because it wasn’t what I wanted to see, as opposed to it actually being badly done.  This just isn’t the way the story “should” end, in my view.  Indeed, I think it would have been more satisfying to bring these different dreams together, rather than split them apart.  But even with that opinion in place, I can see that Gerwig and her team pull off the ending with the same sense of cinematic beauty as the rest of the movie.

Indeed, my only “practical” objection to the movie (something that was badly done, not just something I didn’t happen to like) is the visual casting of Timothée Chalamet (Laurie) and Florence Pugh (Amy).  Both actors are good, but there’s something about Chalemet’s looks that make him seem like a kid, no matter how old he is supposed to be.  And Florence Pugh plays Amy at all ages, including a child, even though she is in her 20’s.  It makes for some weird moments where you aren’t sure how old people are supposed to be.  And it results in Amy seeming to be the same age as Laurie later one, or even older, when she is supposed to be like a ten years younger.

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But this is a very nitpicky sort of nitpick for an otherwise terrific movie.  I am very glad I have seen it–between this and Jojo Rabbit, the movie theatre has been a rewarding place to visit.


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