Little Women

Posted: January 19, 2020 in Film reviews
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Directed by Greta Gerwig. Starring Saoirse Ronan, Emma Watson, Florence Pugh, Eliza Scanlan, Laura Dern, Timothée Chalamet and Meryl Streep.

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It’s several years after the Civil War, and Jo March (Ronan) is teaching in New York, though she’s also following her dream of becoming a writer. Back home are her sisters Meg (Watson) and Beth (Scanlen) while her fourth sister Amy (Pugh) is in Paris, learning to paint and providing companionship to Aunt March (Streep). When one of her sisters becomes unwell Jo decides to return home, convinced she’ll never make it as an author.

The story flashes back to 1861, when the girls are all living at home with their mother (Dern), and their father (Better Call Saul’s Bob Odenkirk) is away at war. The girls have dreams of a better life, and are intrigued by their neighbour Laurie (Chalamet) but he may only have eyes for Jo.

As the story flits between childhood and adulthood, the past and the present, the girls will face adversity and tragedy, but also joy and fulfilment, but can even Jo find happiness?

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Fair disclosure I’ve never read the book, and haven’t seen any of the other adaptations, which isn’t to say I came to this completely fresh, I understood the rough narrative, and knew of the major tragedy that affected the sisters. As such I can’t speak to how many people who are fans will feel about this adaptation (though on the whole the prevailing wisdom appears to be extremely positive) I can only say how I felt about it, well aware that I’m not exactly the target demographic.

I thought it was wonderful.

Which does make you wonder about whether I’m the target demographic after all. Maybe my demographic is just well directed, well written, well-acted films? Who knew?

While I liked Lady Bird, I never quite understood why it was so well regarded, but in the case of Gerwig’s second solo directorial effort I have no such issues. This is an incredibly well directed film, sumptuous in its staging and costumes, which is all the more impressive when you realise it’s relatively small budget, and it’s well deserving of its recent best picture nomination, as is Gerwig for her best adapted screenplay nomination. It somewhat beggars’ belief that Gerwig didn’t get a nomination for directing, but chalk that up to yet another glaring Oscar omission. Her screenplay is exceptional, and by all accounts she hasn’t played with the text very much at all, so any accusations of turning Little Women into a modern feminist film are, I believe, entirely incorrect. Everything Gerwig needed was already in the text.

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She’s used it to make a film demonstrating how little autonomy women had in the past. As both Jo and Amy make clear, women have few ways to gain wealth, and even if they do it becomes the property of their husband upon marriage. And yet despite this Gerwig shows all sides of the equation, one sister is more than happy to get married, and late on Ronan has a phenomenally strident monologue that balances her need to have agency with a deep and painful loneliness. It’s incredible.

Ah, Ronan. I know she can act, have known it since Atonement all those years ago, yet still she surprises me. She’s truly incredible here, and as Jo is the heart of the book, so Ronan is the beating heart of the film. It may not be this year (though I hope it is) but sooner or later Saoirse will win an Oscar, and I doubt it will be her last.

Close behind her in the acting stakes is Pugh, an actress who demonstrates ability far beyond her years. I may have been lukewarm about Midsommar, but Pugh was phenomenal in that, and is again here, and in some ways with a harder part as Amy isn’t as inherently likeable as Jo, yet Pugh and Gerwig make her empathetic, even when she’s being a spoilt brat.

Watson is a good actress, but she does fade a little into the background, in part because of how good Ronan and Pugh are, but also by nature of the character she has to play, still she’s quietly effective and the film would be lessened without her. Similarly Scanlan, who shines despite having the least to do of the four sisters.

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But then as both writer and director Gerwig gives each member of her ensemble their moment to shine. Dern is wonderful, and the moment when she tells Jo that she’s angry every day is understated yet powerful.

Chalamet, much like Pugh, has to raise the character of Laurie above just being a drippy, spoilt brat, and for the most part is successful, and Chris Cooper as Laurie’s grandfather gets one of the best moments of the film, showcasing his grief without saying a word as he sits on the stairs and listens to Beth playing the piano. Meryl Street is of course very good.

The decision to show the story in a nonlinear way is a good one, and this might not have been as enjoyable if it had followed a more traditional path. For the most part Gerwig keeps the timelines easy to tell apart, although at times they do seem to merge, intentionally in one case in relation to tragedy, which just adds to the heartbreak.

If I had one issue it’s with the character of Friedrich, Louis Garrel is very good but I wish we’d seen a little more of him early on. He seems to appear out of nowhere at the end (but I hear this is the same in the book). Similarly more on the courtship of Meg and John Brooke (James Norton) might have been nice. Then again it might have made the film feel bloated, and it didn’t detract from my enjoyment.

Exceptionally well written and directed, gorgeous to look at and featuring stellar performances, this could have been mawkish and over sentimental but Gerwig never lets it veer even close to that. Twenty-year-old me probably would have hated it. Almost fifty-year-old me really, really enjoyed it.

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Comments
  1. gingerb0oks says:

    Loved Saoirse as usual but Florence Pugh stole the show for me

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