- Movie Rating -

Little Women (2019)

| January 19, 2020

What a wonderful, immersive experience is Greta Gerwig’s adaptation of Little Women.  What a vibrant and alive and innovative work of art has she brought to us.  And what a gifted filmmaker she’s proving to be.  After directing the wonderful Ladybird two years ago and writing the 2012 dramedy Frances Ha, I am convinced that she is going to be one of the medium’s great creative voices.  Her adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s 1869 classic is no stale hackstrung run-through of a literary classic, it’s a story that is swimming in period detail but also lined with an exploration of the second-class status of women as it existed in the 19th century and comparably to how women are treated now.

I confess, I walked into Little Women not knowing what to expect.  I’ve seen umpteen versions of this story and after Gillian Armstrong’s nearly perfect 1994 film, I wasn’t sure how the story could be improved.  But I underestimated Gerwig as a writer and director despite her pedigree.  She has a gift for developing characters who seem flawed beyond repair and yet somehow still earn our sympathies, and I underestimated her great gift for cinematic style.  If her calling is to be a director, I’m eager to see what she does next.

The greatness of Little Women comes from her extensive knowledge of the material.  It is clear that she has a passion for this book.  She knows this story and these characters top to bottom, inside and out and it may be true that she’s had this adaptation in her mind for a very long time.  She sees these characters in full, not simply by placing actors in from of a sumptuous setting but making us feel that they’ve been there for years. She emmerses us in this world. We’re with these characters. We are at their fireside, their dinner table, their corners with intimate conversations.

In each of the March girls Gerwig finds a bold and very specific personality, a heart, a yearning wrought from their upbringing at the hands of their supportive mother (Laura Dern).  Front and center is rebellious Tomboy Jo March (Saorse Ronin) a young woman bursting with vibrant energy; she longs to be a writer but, as the film opens, we see that she has to wander through the minefield of patriarchal negativity.  Her sister Meg (Supporting Actress nominee Florence Pugh) is her counterpoint, an aspiring painter who is the perfect picture of sibling rivalry. 

Then there’s Meg (Emma Watson) a clothes-horse whose pulled into marriage not merely by the rigors of the time, but by love at a moment when marriage was a business arrangement.  And then there’s shy, withdrawn Beth (Eliza Scanlen) a potentially great musician whose aspirations are largely set aside by her quiet demeanor.

It is a little reassuring that Gerwig assumes that we will know these characters as well as she does because her storytelling technique is tricky.  The story moves back and forth in time as Jo, now an adult, is running a boarding school and flashes back to her old life during the Civil War growing into womanhood with her sisters.  In this, we can see the two timelines building through the relationships that the girls form with each other and the men who satellite their lives.  Events build, relationships flourish and fall apart and each has its own deserved level of dramatic resolution that is not only earned but gives you the kind of poetic narrative that is usually only found in books.

What surprised me was the generosity of Gerwig’s filmmaking.  This is no flat rebranding of a literary classic.  You feel the times that these girls are living in, past and present, and Gerwig creates a closed-in atmosphere that women of the time had to suffer, the confining walls that represent a patriarchy that form the hard-bound roadblocks of their individual passions.  Each has a dreamy calling to be an actress, a writer, a painter and a musician but the logical calling is to marry a wealthy suitor who will give them comfort and security.  In each of these girls we see the course of destiny and how marriage and financial expectation interferes with their dreams.

In applying this element, Gerwig sets her version apart from what has come before. Jo is far more feminist and very sure of herself. The expectations of these women who are threatened with the prospect of either getting married into financial stability or shameful spinsterhood is much more upfront and for these girls becomes their dramatic arc. The expectations of artistic and career-minded women of the time is no different, the movie says, then what young women are expected to consider now. Times haven’t changed all them much, the movie says.

I walked out of Little Women knowing that I had seen a film made with passion, with guts, with a film artist’s great skill. I felt for these girls and their lives. For a few hours, I was involved in their plight and when I stepped out, I felt as if I’d been part of their family. Gerwig has made a film that deserves to be cherished and even studied. It’s glorious, intimate, involving, heart-felt and one of the best films of the year.

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.
(2019) View IMDB Filed in: Uncategorized