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Little Women
★★★★☆
First run Seenmorethanonce Theater cinema

Greta Gerwig follows up her impressive solo directorial début Lady Bird (2017) with this bold, contemporary adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s nineteenth-century coming-of-age novel, Little Women. Alcott’s family drama is one of those rare works of literature—like Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, and William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night's Dream—that can withstand even the most ham-fisted telling; and when placed in the hands of a great director it can cast its timeless spell with new, sometimes profound, relevance. Alcott was the first American author to take the internal lives of teenage girls seriously. She based her affectionate tale on her own lived experience, growing up in genteel poverty with her sisters and their kindhearted mother, known in the book as Marmee, in Concord, Massachusetts, during and after the Civil War.

The story of the March sisters, Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy, and their transition from childhood to adulthood has been adapted for the big screen six previous times. Two silent films were made, though the first has been lost to time. Then came George Cukor’s 1933 sound version starring a young ebullient Katharine Hepburn as Jo. The still deeply moving Cukor/Hepburn picture spun the endearing, inspirational tale of resilient American womanhood for Depression-era audiences, some of whom could still remember the Civil War. Mervyn LeRoy’s Technicolor version starring Elizabeth Taylor as Amy followed in 1949, with its visually sumptuous though narratively clunky jewel box of studio production. Both June Allyson’s braying interpretation of Jo and the film itself pail in comparison with Cukor’s modestly powerful version. Gillian Armstrong’s 1994 adaptation starring Winona Ryder as Jo was the first to be directed by a woman (as well as scripted by a woman, Robin Swicord, and produced by a woman, Denise Di Novi). It most faithfully captures the warm and cozy atmosphere of the novel’s early chapters and is easily the version you most want to curl up with and watch over and over again. Clare Niederpruem's 2018 modern-day update, starring Lea Thompson as Marmee, put an opportunistic, faith-based, ABC Family Channel-like spin on the material with dubious, though still highly watchable, results. There have also been multiple serialized television adaptations—one from 1978 that starred The Partridge Family's Susan Dey, The Brady Bunch's Eve Plumb, and Star Trek’s William Shatner! 

With all these versions out there (and with the wonderful classic novel itself easy to read, re-read, and imagine oneself into), it’s no surprise that each successive filmmaker has refashioned the material in fresh new ways, often with the assumption that viewers will come to their Little Women movies already well-acquainted with the story. This is certainly the case with Gerwig, who adopts a nonlinear structure with some drawbacks along with many advantages. And this telling treats Jo not only as Alcott’s heroine but also as her direct autobiographical surrogate. The meta-narrative tells the story of the March sisters as well as of Alcott herself. Unlike her central character Jo, Alcott didn’t need to marry to find happiness or financial security because she became an enormously successful writer—one shrewd enough to retain the copyright to her first major work. 

Gerwig’s picture sacrifices the beloved qualities we most associate with this story, the idealistic, homey feeling evoked by its first half, in which we meet the main characters as teens. Nearly every screen version of Little Women spends a majority of its time with the young girls delighting in the joys and frustrations of sisterhood.  We see them at play—making music, cooking food, playing in the snow, teasing each other, and enacting Jo’s original theatrical productions. And we see them at work, with Meg teaching their impoverished neighbors, Jo assisting her wealthy great-aunt, Beth helping Marmee keep house, and Amy acting out at school. This early section, which centers on the March sisters’ first Christmas without their father who is off working as a pastor on the front lines of the Civil War, gives the story its warmth and charm—and has made many of the film versions perennial holiday favorites.

Though Gerwig’s movie was released on Christmas day, hers is the least likely version to join the ranks of go-to Christmastime pictures that families pull out to watch together every year. Eschewing the storybook qualities of Alcott’s first half, Gerwig confidently starts off with the girls as adults. Jo is in New York trying to make a living as a writer; Meg remains in Concord, Massachusetts, where she has married a poor teacher; Amy is away in Paris learning to be an artist and courting a wealthy potential husband; and Beth rests in bed at home, sick with scarlet fever. The narrative darts back and forth between the first two parts of the book (which were initially published separately) so we immediately see the long-term effects of events that occurred in childhood. 

This time-hopping structure enables Gerwig to fit more of the novel into a feature film than previous versions. Even more significantly, it allows her to give prominent focus to the adult story. Jo, always presented as having a deep intelligence and understanding of her station, is depicted here as possessing far more agency and worldliness. Meg’s arc does not seem to come to an end when she gets married. In this version, we see her experience some of the joys and difficulties of life as a mother of two, married to a man who struggles to provide. Most notably, this film spends a good deal of time with Amy in Paris, where she hopes to become a great artist but discovers that goal may lie beyond her reach.

The cast assembled for this production is an exquisite mix of vivacious young talent and stalwarts of the silver screen. Saoirse Ronan (Atonement, Brooklyn, and Gerwig’s Lady Bird) plays Jo, the imaginative tomboy yearning to be a writer, with just the right mix of conviction, expressive emotionality, and pragmatism. Emma Watson (the Harry Potter film series, The Perks of Being a WallflowerBeauty and the Beast) wonderfully underplays Meg, without ever disappearing into the background. Australian TV star Eliza Scanlen brings dimension to Beth, a character who, in some versions, never fully comes into her own beyond her heartstring-tugging qualities.

As Marmee, a role played by the likes of Mary Astor, Susan Sarandon, and Emily Watson, Laura Dern gives yet another perfectly calibrated performance, every bit as rich and layered as her more substantial supporting turn in this same year’s 
Marriage Story, written and directed by Gerwig’s partner Noah Baumbach. Timothée Chalamet (the It-boy of the late ‘10s, known for Call Me By Your Name, Lady Bird, and Beautiful Boy) is an ideal choice for Laurie, the March’s wealthy, charming, but indecisive neighbor who becomes the only male member of their club. 

As Amy, Florence Pugh (Lady Macbeth, 
Outlaw King, Midsommar) is the weakest link in this impressive ensemble. Her style of performance is distinctively twenty-first century, sometimes feels self-conscious, and always seems older than Amy should. I do so wish she'd been able to pitch her voice up a bit when playing Amy as a little girl. Also, unlike the other young actresses, she’s not a dead ringer for a daughter of Dern. But Pugh is, nonetheless, the right choice for the way Gerwig defines her character. Amy is often depicted as a spoiled brat, sometimes serving as a kind of antagonist for the heroic Jo. Here, they are two sides of a coin. Both are smart, spirited young women intent on transcending the gender trappings of their era. They stand in contrast with their sisters: traditionally-minded Meg, who decides to marry and have children, and Beth, whose sickness prevents her from realizing any grand ambitions. On the other hand, Jo and Amy, the two sometimes opposing sisters at the center of this story, each possess a clear understanding of the limited options for women in their time, and they seek to challenge those usual, “little” expectations. But only one has the talent to truly forge a path of her own.

The supporting cast is also terrific. Seeing Chris Cooper as the elderly widower Mr. Laurence and Meryl Streep as the irascibly judgmental Aunt March might give one pause—we’ve seen these actors play similar roles, respectively, not always with the greatest results. But Cooper brings a warmth to this character that we’ve not seen from him since his lead turn in John Sayles’ Lone Star over twenty years ago. And Streep scores several laughs without over-milking the part. Like only she can, the indomitable Streep provides her Aunt March with just a hint of the ability to see past her time to a more enlightened age where the stern advice and criticism she heaps on her nieces might be less necessary. In the role of Professor Bhaer, Jo’s fellow lodger in New York and the only friend who offers her constructive literary criticism, dashing French actor Louis Garrel (The Dreamers, The Beautiful Person, Saint Laurent) is hardly the picture of the heavy-set German in Alcott’s novel, but he feels just right for the twists of this telling. Lastly, the great contemporary playwright and frequent screen incarnation of old-school narrow-minded American patriarchy, Tracy Letts, has a terrific little turn as Jo’s stuffy New York publisher.

Gerwig and cinematographer Yorick Le Saux (Swimming Pool, I Am Love, Clouds of Sils Maria) photograph their Little Women in gorgeous 35mm on location in Concord. These two aesthetic production choices go a long way towards grounding this movie in its proper period despite the modern style in which it’s told. Unfortunately, the relentless speed at which Gerwig and her editor Nick Houy pace the picture damages its overall power and resonance. As much as shooting on film in the actual town where the story began evokes its era, the way the movie is edited feels anachronistic. I’m not referring to the nonlinear structure, which comes across as though it was created on the page with careful forethought about how the events in each time period would inform the others. But the brisk speed at which scenes fly by is at odds with a story set in an age where time generally passed more slowly. Our inability to spend moments sitting, thinking, and just “being” with the characters makes some of the carefully orchestrated dialogue feel forced and self-conscious. 

A full two-and-a-half-hour cut might have enabled the breathing room needed to make this Little Women a truly great picture. At 135 minutes, it may already seem like a long movie by today’s standards, but for a prestige, awards-contending drama, it's really not.  Especially in a story that deals with the passage of time and the mysteries of time, the rushed nature contradicts one of the main themes, and that speed impairs the overall splendor and near perfection of so many of the film’s other qualities.

Yet, even with such an undermining flaw, this version of Alcott’s book—which is just as much about Alcott’s book—is a superb blending of timely and timeless preoccupations. On the modern side, it’s a film made from preexisting material that many in its audience will be coming to with much prior knowledge of the story and characters; a time-hopping meta-narrative that comments on both forms of its authorship as it spins its yarn; and a tale that explores the options for women oppressed by the society they were born into, told from the perspective of a gifted contemporary female artist. On the historical side, it’s a film that captures—through its magnificent visuals, authentic settings, inventive, lived-in costume design, and evocative score—a time beyond the reach of memory for anyone alive today; a story that celebrates the now quaint-seeming American values of family unity, civic duty, and social justice; and a tale that explores the options for women oppressed by the society they were born into, told from the perspective of a gifted contemporary female artist.

Twitter Capsule:
Gerwig sacrifices some of the beloved qualities most associated with the literary classic to create a boldly contemporary telling of Alcott’s story—that’s also about Alcott’s story. Sumptuously photographed and wonderfully cast.

Directed by Greta Gerwig
Produced by Denise Di Novi, Robin Swicord, and Amy Pascal

Written for the screen by Greta Gerwig
Based on the novel by Louisa May Alcott

With: Saoirse Ronan, Emma Watson, Florence Pugh, Eliza Scanlen, Laura Dern, Timothée Chalamet, Tracy Letts, Bob Odenkirk, James Norton, Louis Garrel, Jayne Houdyshell, Chris Cooper, and Meryl Streep

Cinematography: Yorick Le Saux
Editing: Nick Houy
Music: Alexandre Desplat

Runtime: 135 min
Release Date: 25 December 2019
Aspect Ratio: 1.85 : 1
Color