Title: Little Women
Directed by: Greta Gerwig
Written by: Greta Gerwig
Starring: Saoirse Ronan, Emma Watson, Florence Pugh, Eliza Scanlen, Laura Dern, Timothée Chalamet, Meryl Streep, Tracy Letts, Bob Odenkirk, James Norten, Louis Garrel & Chris Cooper
Produced by: Amy Pascal, Denise Di Novi & Robin Swicord
“… a rite of passage for its younger talent.”
Reel Talk - Little Women (2019)
Little Women is just the latest screen adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s 1868 novel of the same name. It’s a more than respectable addition to a long list of adaptions spanning decades and dozens upon dozens of stars from the likes of silent film legends to Katherine Hepburn and Kirsten Dunst. Like the installations before it, it is well-crafted cinema that—appropriately, as a coming of age story—reads as a kind of rite of passage for its younger talent.
In case the rock you’ve been living under didn’t contain a copy of Alcott’s Little Women, it is the semi-autobiographical story of the four March sisters of Massachusetts and their journey into womanhood. It is a seminal work—both in literature and film—whose cultural and artistic contributions really cannot be overstated. Alas, this isn’t a review of Alcott’s work but of Greta Gerwig’s.
Like the screen adaptations that came before it, Little Women jerked strong performances out of its cast. Saoirse Ronan as Jo March—the closest thing we have to a lead character—strikes just the right balance of strength and vulnerability. With so many previous iterations of the character, it’s difficult to say whether or not Ronan brought anything new to role but she did bring it, fully realized and flaming with intensity, into the 21st century. Her chemistry with Timothée Chalamet—who has his share of standout moments in this film—forms a strong bond between their characters that holds much of the tension in this film together.
Florence Pugh—who had another incredibly strong outing in 2019 with the deeply uncomfortable Midsommar—was perhaps the breakout performance in this strong ensemble. Aided by excellent writing and a powerful arc for her character, no one quite encompassed the journey from girlhood to womanhood more completely and totally than Pugh. Her role isn’t one that necessarily invites itself to physicality but, as this film waltzes across its timeline, you can trace when and where you are in this script just by Pugh’s posture. Losing out to Laura Dern in Marriage Story at the 92nd Academy Awards for Actress in a Supporting Role shouldn’t take anything away from Pugh’s performance—it was, by far and away, one of the strongest supporting roles amongst males or females for the year. Other cast members Emma Watson, Eliza Scanlen, Laura Dern and Meryl Streep round out a film filled to overflowing with charisma.
“Florence Pugh […] was perhaps the breakout performance in this strong ensemble.”
Alexandre Desplat’s score is conventional in keeping with the theme of this classic work of literature but it is also beautiful with modern elements in its melodies. Fellow Frenchman, Yorick Le Saux’s cinematography jumps from dusty to sharp to make it feel at-times nostalgic and at-times poignant.
What prevents this film from attaining loftier heights is its direction. Little Women fits too well into our culture’s existing narrative to be thought-provoking or, frankly, terribly interesting. It is unobjectionable which is to say that it is unremarkable. In a year that gave us the daring vision of Todd Phillips in Joker, the outré vision of Taika Waititi in Jojo Rabbit and the capricious vision of Bong Joon-ho in Parasite, it is little wonder that Greta Gerwig’s Little Women didn’t earn her much recognition during awards season.
Perhaps the hope here was that Little Women would serve, not to change the current discussion or cultural complexion, but to record it as the previous adaptions of Alcott’s work recorded the cultural ethos of their respective times. If so, that’s a fair and noble goal though it is this one reviewer’s opinion that works of art ought to say something new. Either way, Little Women is a triumph and will be a joy to watch and re-watch every Christmas season.