2019 | rated PG | starring Saoirse Ronan, Florence Pugh, Emma Watson, Eliza Scanlon, Timothy Chalamet, Laura Dern, Tracy Letts, Chris Cooper, Meryl Streep, Bob Odenkirk | directed by Greta Gerwig | 2 hrs 15 mins |
It’s a rare thing for a rigid historical costume drama to feel as warm and lived-in as Greta Gerwig’s 2019 adaptation of Little Women. A remarkable piece of pure entertainment, Gerwig has captured the spirit of Louisa May Alcott’s book – including some of it’s behind-the-scenes lore – and crafted the perfect film to cozy up with next to a crackling fire with a blanket of snow outside.
The March sisters – headstrong Jo (Saoirse Ronan), young lovelorn Amy (Florence Pugh), budding debutant Meg (Emma Watson) and ailing piano player Beth (Eliza Scanlon) – get by in Civil War era Massachusetts while their father is away at war; struggling with relationships, as neighbor boy Laurie (Timothy Chalamet) floats through all of their lives, and chasing their dreams against expectations of both the times and of their miserable Aunt (Meryl Streep).
Gerwig tackles Alcott’s book with a few different tactics. The film moves quickly, employing the kind of rat-tat-tat dialog out of her characters that Gerwig has been writing since Frances Ha and Mistress America. If it at all feels anachronistic it also makes the movie feel distinctly the work of it’s creator. Most potentially divisive, she rejects a straight-forward narrative to send the movie back and forth between past and present; between the young Marches crammed together in their small house screaming over each other and the colder, more isolated future where they have been scattered apart. I love that the movie doesn’t make these transitions obvious, but Gerwig uses several clever visual cues to help us put the puzzle together – the flashbacks, bathed in light hues, the flash-fowards stark, grittier blues.
All of the girls become defined most distinctly by their passions. Amy, the artist, Beth the musician, Meg the romantic clotheshorse and Jo, our film’s protagonist, a writer of family-produced plays and aspiring novelist. They also have unique attitudes about potential suitors. Gerwig’s thesis is multi-layered. One, that women of the time largely could not – or believed they could not – make enough money to be on their own and so had to value money and status in a man, sometimes over love. But it also complicates this by giving them escape routes that let them leave or chose to stay in their mental prisons. Thanks to the film’s non-linear style we often get to see the adult women taking a rigid stand and then later how their younger self was influenced into that position. Some girls marry for love, some marry for money, some make their way in the world. It’s in Jo’s desire to write a novel where she becomes the Alcott character herself and Gerwig reconciles “Little Women”, the book, with modern feminist moviemaking. Putting the breaks on Jo’s literary career is newspaper editor Dashwood (Traci Letts) and their back and forth through the film turns the story we’re watching into a look at Alcott’s literary limitations as well as comments on it’s own romantic tropes. The film’s climax is kind of brilliant.
If the movie occasionally races from one set piece to the next the way the March sisters so quickly gather into one picturesque scene after another, it’s because Gerwig is covering a lot of ground here. She folds the story in a satisfying way with a deft filmmaker’s eye. The film is full of beautiful tracking shots, rich well-world period details and across-the-board great performances. While Ronan carries the film, it’s Florence Pugh who shines the brightest in an almost duel role – so different is her brash child version from her stoic and more cynical older self.
Deliberately staged so that almost every scene looks like a painting and written with Gerwig’s usual snappy wit, Women is a monumental step up in Gerwig’s filmography where every corner of it feels necessary and rendered with care by a master filmmaker’s eye. Gerwig’s first film, Lady Bird, was cute. Little Women is a film. One of the best movies of the year, an exceptional adaptation and a deserving staple around Christmas time.