Little Women (2019) Review

A SOLID “COMING OF AGE” TRIMUPH


 

In the classic arena of literary works, Louisa May Alcott’s novel titled Little Women has earned it spot amongst the ranks of other fictional greats such as Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, and Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. Published originally in two volumes in 1868 and 1869 (republished into a single novel in 1880), the explores the lives of the four March sisters (Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy); detailing their passage from childhood to womanhood. Loosely based on Alcott’s life with her three sisters, Little Women became a critical and popular success; garnishing massive with readers all over the world, with scholars citing the books three main themes of “domestically, work, and true love” as the core message of the novel, which later on became cemented in classic fiction literature as well as many awards / accolades in the process. Given its success, Hollywood eventually got around to adapting Alcott’s novel into various media outlets, including several theatrical stage plays, a handful of television productions, and seven motion picture adaptations with the first one being released back in 1917 (as a silent film) with the most recent one being released in 2018 (a modern vision of Alcott’s story). Now, Columbia Pictures (Sony Pictures), Regency Enterprises, and director Greta Gerwig present the eighth cinematic presentation of Louisa May Alcott’s beloved novel with the 2019 film Little Women. Does this latest adaptation bring a refresh of the classic or does it get muddled within its narrative of literature pedigree?

THE STORY


Living with their mother, Marmee (Laura Dern) in Concord, Massachusetts, the March sisters share a tight bond while their father, Robert March (Bob Odenkirk) is away, joining the Union Army in the Civil War. Jo (Saoirse Ronan) is strong force of nature, barely holding back her wild spirt of pure creativity and opinionated brash behavior, putting her imagination to paper with the hopes to become an aspiring writer. Amy (Florence Pugh) is the youngest, desperate to join in on the maturity others are experiencing as well as wanting her own desire of painting and love. Me (Emma Watson) is the eldest of the siblings, concerned with the path to marriage in a more practical than her siblings aspire to achieve. And Beth (Eliza Scanlen) is shy and meek soul with a musical gift who chooses to stay away from frenzy social lives of her sisters. Living next door is Theodore “Laurie” Lawrence, (Timothée Chalamet), a lonely yet wealthy young man who’s fond of the March sisters, with particular interest in Jo. Over the years, the young teenage women experience changes in their lives, with Laurie weaving in and out of view as each strive to make sense of their promising potential, forced to go their separate ways to achieve it.

THE GOOD / THE BAD


Of course, working in the bookstore retail for nearly fourteen years, I have come (and do know of) Alcott’s Little Women novel as a piece of classic literature. Naturally, I did know of the book beforehand (labeled as a classic) in various libraries (school or public ones), but only by its namesake and that’s it. I eventually found out it was about four sisters and the lives they lived (following their dreams), but still…. I never read the book. The same goes for the variety of adaptations (i.e I knew of them, but never watched them). That being said, I was somewhat curious to see one adaptation of it, with the release of the 2018 iteration of Little Women, which was released on the 150th anniversary of Alcott’s novel and was set during modern times; still retaining the fundamental narrative of the story. While I did see the trailer several times at my local theater (with a release date set for September 28th, 2018), the movie was only released in select / limited screenings. So, I never got to see or review it that year. However, I’m still curious to see.

Naturally, this brings me back to talking about Little Women, a 2019 adaptation of the same name of Alcott’s beloved classic novel and is the seventh film adaptation. As mentioned above, I’ve never read or seeing Little Women (just a few snippets of the synopsis), but still had a desire to one day read the book or watch one of the film adaptations of it. I remember hearing about a new 2019 adaptation coming out, with both Greta Gerwig and Saoirse Ronan, the director and actress behind the critically acclaimed Lady Bird, being attached to the project in their respective roles of director and lead actress role. Plus, when I saw the film’s movie trailer, it definitely looked like a wholesome adaptation. Again, never read the book or seeing any of the past films, but there was just something about this 2019 adaptation that made me quite interested in seeing it. Perhaps it was the film’s cast as the movie certainly boasted a lot of recognizable acting talents (Ronan, Pugh, Watson, Dern, and Streep) and the film’s movie trailer looked quite pleasant as solid project and not just a messy “based on a book” endeavor like some features have done in the past. Additionally, a lot of the early advance reviews of the movie were positive; praising Gerwig’s direction for the movie as well as Ronan in her role Jo March. So, I was really curious to see this movie; closing out the year with a touching cinematic story of a classic literature novel. And what did I think of it? Well, I really liked it. Despite a few minor remarks, Gerwig’s Little Women is a memorable and heart aching coming-of-age adaptation that is wholesome in the film’s presentation and captivating within its solid cast of acting talents. I can really speak to the other adaptations, but this one is truly a triumph to watch.

As a side-note, despite knowning of Alcott’s novel for many years and the various other film / TV adaptations of it, I actually have never read (or seeing) Little Women. So, my review is gonna be primarily based on 2019 movie viewing experience and not so much on what was changed, added, or removed from the original material or even its previous adaptations.

As I said in the paragraph above, Little Women is directed Greta Gerwig, whose previous directorial works includes such movies like Lady Bird and Nights and Weekends. Given the success and praise that was received by Lady Bird, Gerwig seemed poised to direct another fundamental movie on the horizon, which (of course) takes the form of Alcott’s latest novel. In this regard, Gerwig succeeds with Little Women; approaching the project with heartfelt sincerity and carrying a certain wholesomeness throughout much of the film. This, of course, makes the movie quite enjoyable and is quite easy to follow; splitting the story’s narrative in various character-built moments for us (the viewers) to follow on the four March sister’s passage from young women to adulthood. Perhaps the most interesting aspect that Gerwig does with the film is splicing of the two-time period narrative…allowing dramatic tension and impactful scenes to be create that reflect on the past and present settings. Although, this tactic is a bit of a “double edge” sword to some (more on that below). However, it does offer something new into this Little Women adaptation and it definitely stand outs in being different than its predecessors.

Much like Lady Bird, Gerwig plays “double duty” on Little Women, with her direction for the film as well as the feature’s screenplay. I’ve read the summary of Alcott’s novel after watching the movie and, despite a few minor tweaks, Gerwig’s screenplay definitely captures the essence of the classic Little Women narrative; reflecting upon its various themes, its characters, and the overall arcing story that plays out. This is where the classic “coming of age” aspect comes into play and certainly the heart of Alcott’s novel as Gerwig perfectly presents this fundamental element masterfully in the various paths that the March sisters travel on. In truth, the film speaks of “female empowerement” in the lives of March Sisters and, while there have been plenty of “female empowerment” film endeavor in the past several years, Gerwig’s Little Women reflects on that nuances in a gentle and respectable way; projecting the March siblings in various strong attributes and personalities (i.e. strong willed, determined, compassionate, creative, caring, and wanting either a better life or a life that is of their own means). Additionally, the screenplay is sharp and has a natural “free flowing” within its various scenes and dialogue throughout. This is especially noticeable in many of the scenes where all four March sister are together, with Gerwig allowing the four actresses (in the characters) to converse in a talkative nature that feels genuine in their sisterly bond with each other. That’s not to say the entire movie is like as each one (as well as the supporting players) get their own poignant dialogue moments to shine throughout the movie, which is quite tactful and heartfelt. Altogether, it’s quite clear behind Gerwig’s love and care on adapting the tale of the March sisters, which is richly highlighted from the script handling and helming of Little Women; offering a somewhat new cinematic take on Alcott’s classic novel that wholeheartedly speaks (and respects) its original themes.

In its visual presentation, Little Women is quite solid feature film that truly speaks to its time setting and background nuances in both a well-mannered way and in a motion picture aspect. I’m not saying that the movie is blockbuster-ish stunning with loud and boisterous color and large extensive set-pieces, but its definitely a strikingly beautiful, with the feature capturing the essence of the early turning of the century “look and feel” throughout much of the film’s background setting and costume / set apparel. Thus, the movie’s various “behind the scenes” team, including production designs by Jess Gonchor, set decorations by Claire Kaufman, costume designs by Jacqueline Durran, and the art direction team (Sean Falkner, Chris Farmer, and Bryan Felty), for their efforts in bringing this “movie world” to life in quite a cinematic way. Plus, the film’s cinematography work by Yorick Le Saux has a beautiful and gentle touch within Little Women’s cinematic moments. It’s not bold and striking dramatic moments, but rather in its more subtle motion of capturing character moments and sweeping angles here and there that ultimately works in the feature’s favor of likeability and making the film pleasing to the eye. Also, the film’s score, which was composed by Alexandre Desplat, does a great job in presenting a sweet and melodic touching musical composition that certainly compliments the feature’s narrative throughout its various scenes.

To be honest, there wasn’t much that I didn’t like about this movie as it was pretty good and offered up a wholesome endeavor. Thus, my negative criticism remarks are mostly minor complaints that I had with Little Women. Again, my review is solely based on just the film and not so much on Alcott’s novel or the various movie adaptations made from it. Perhaps the biggest criticism that I have with the movie is in its pacing, with the film’s narrative being spilt between two time periods. The splicing of these timelines does make for some more compelling drama for the movie to play around with (offering up suspenseful moments and character-oriented sequences), but this makes the film (as a whole) a bit fragmented; similar to what happened in IT: Chapter Two. It works, but I think that the straightforward narrative approached could’ve worked in a better way; allowing the story to unfold in linear way rather than chopping up the movie into flashback sequences and present-day events. Because of this, the movie does have a few pacing problems, with some characters and events getting a bit shortchanged in favor of more of the “bulkier” narrative threads substances. In conjunction with this, the film’s lengthy runtime also causes some problematic moments throughout. With a runtime of 134 minutes (two hours and fourteen minutes, Little Women sure does feel quite long and, while Gertwig meanders through the various narrative threads that the March sisters, it seems like the film could’ve edited down to a comfortable two hours runtime.

The cast of Little Women is another great positive attribute that this adaptation has going for it, with the talent involved delivering some solid performances throughout and bring Alcott’s beloved characters to life. Of course, the film’s main sisterly quartet of the March sisters are the primary focus of the feature’s story, with actresses Saoirse Ronan, Florence Pugh, Emma Watson, and Eliza Scanlen playing the central roles of Josephine “Jo” March, Amy Curtis March, Margaret “Meg” March, and Elizabeth “Beth” March respectfully. As expected, the characters of Jo and Amy get the most spotlight in the movie and certainly hold that position gracefully by the acting talents of Ronan and Pugh. Known for her roles in Lady Bird, Brooklyn, and Mary Queen of Scots, Ronan is quite a capable upcoming actress in Hollywood and her performance in Little Women showcases that beautifully; portraying Jo with plenty of strong female attributes within her character, including an amusing brashness and opinionated persona. Ronan’s quick wit of delivery of dialogue lines also helps the character and certainly brings the sharpness of Jo’s character (be it warmth or inner turmoil) Despite the film having several leading characters, Little Women makes Jo the single protagonist for much of the feature, with Ronan certainly carrying that theatrical weight on her shoulder; pulling off another solid performance. Likewise, Pugh, known for her roles in Lady Macbeth, The Commuter, and Fighting with My Family, delivers a strong and compelling portrayal of the Amy, a character that is caught between Jo’s shadow as well as finding her own way in the world (i.e painting and finding love). Pugh is a capable actress and (much like Ronan’s Jo) makes a profound statement in this iteration of Little Women; making Amy a determined female that wants to her way in the world as well finding love on her own terms.

Behind those two, Watson, known for her roles in the Harry Potter film series as well as Beauty and the Beast and The Perks of Being a Wallflower, plays the character of Meg, the oldest of March sister. Of the four, Watson certainly has the most recognizable “star power” (most due to her portrayal of Hermione in the Harry Potter movies), but she kind of takes a little bit of the backseat in the film, with the story more interested with Jo and Amy’s stories. Still, looking beyond that, Watson is still quite effective (and lovely) as Meg; capturing the warmth and domesticated feeling in the character. Lastly, Scanlen, known for her roles in Home Away, Babyteeth, and Sharp Objects, kind of gets the short end of the stick in this adaptation of Little Women, with her character of Beth March getting the least to do in the feature. Yes, Scanlen certainly does fit the character and does project the character of Beth correctly of being a kind, sweet, shy, and the musical talent of the family, but the character is sort of the “McGuffin” of the narrative and the movie seems more interested in the other sisters. I kind of wanted to see a bit more of her character, which could’ve helped the movie differentiate itself from other iterations (from what I read of the synopsis of each film and of Alcott’s novel). Still, Scanlen gets the character performance right with innocent sweetness and sincerity.

Collectively, these four acting talents give their respective characters life and certainly do elevate Alcott’s characters in this adaptation, but also work well together, with their screen presence and overall on-screen chemistry with each other feels genuine and naturally….as four sisters. This, of course, (as mentioned above), is the main crux of Little Women and certainly this 2019 version of the narrative works because of these four actresses.

Behind the four March sisters, the next important character in the film is Theodore “Laurie” Laurence, the March’s wealthy neighbor who takes an interest in the March sisters; befriending them and falling in love with several. Played by actor Timothée Chalamet, known for his roles in The King, Call Me by Your Name, and Lady Bird, the character of Laurie is just as paramount to the film’s story as are the March sister; entering their lives and playing the part of family friend / suitor for the March siblings throughout the narrative. Chalamet fits the part of Laurie, wealthy gentlemen that as a flirtatious nature towards both Jo and Amy, and definitely has the “handsome” look, especially starring opposite of Ronan and Pugh in various scenes. Thus, he’s perfectly fine Laurie as anyone would’ve played him in a more “commanding” role, but Chalamet’s theatrical charm and big doe eyes help bring the character to life.

In larger supporting roles, Little Women sees the seasoned / veteran talents, with actress Laura Dern (Jurassic Park and Big Little Lies) and Meryl Streep (Devil Wears Prada and Doubt) playing the roles of Margaret “Marmee” March and Aunt March respectfully. Dern certainly knows how to play the character of Marmee (the March girl’s mother) with enough motherly warmth and affection, while Streep is quite the scene stealer in all of her scenes as March sister’s wealthy and stuffy Aunt March. Plus, as a side-note, it’s finally good to see Dern looking quite well in a role as they usually make her a bit old and dower in some of her recent works. Behind those two actresses, actors Chris Cooper (A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood and The Bourne Identity) and Bob Odenkirk (Breaking Bad and Incredibles 2) as Laurie’s wealthy and lonely father as Mr. Laurence and Union Army soldier Robert March (the husband to Marmee and the father to the March sisters). All of these acting talents lend their screen presence in every scene that they are in; adding that certain “gravitas” to the proceedings.

The rest of the cast, including actor James Norton (Belle and War & Peace) as Meg’s love interest John Brooke, actor Louis Garrel (My King and A Faithful Man) as Jo’s boarding house flat mate / friend Professor Friedrich Bhaer, actress Jayne Houdyshell (Maid in Manhattan and Garden State) as Hannah, and actor Tracy Letts (Ford v Ferrari and The Big Short) as Jo’s publisher Mr. Dashwood, are the rest of the supporting players in the movie, with some having a bit larger roles than others. Still, despite their limited screen time, these acting talents certainly get the job done in their respective roles.

FINAL THOUGHTS


The lives of the four March sisters grow in passage from childhood to adulthood; taking them on their own personal journeys and finding their own paths and dreams along the way in the movie Little Women. Director Greta Gerwig latest film sees the eighth cinematic adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s beloved classic; presenting Gerwig’s vision of the narrative that’s equally captures the heart of Alcott’s novel as well as bringing a genuine sweet narrative of the lives of four sisters as they grow up and follow their passions. While the movie does stumble slightly in its pacing and a few choppy editing of the story’s two distinct time periods, majority of the film is entertaining success, with Gerwig’s spin on the project that ultimately work with her direction and screenplay as well as the visual appeal, coming of age nuances, and a solid and strong ensemble cast involved, especially Ronan, Pugh, and Chalamet. Personally, I really liked this movie. Like I said, I haven’t read the book or seeing any of the other adaptations, but what was presented definitely worked on so many levels; producing something quite moving, touch, and heartfelt throughout its interwoven tale of the March sisters. Thus, my recommendation for this movie is a definite “highly recommended”, especially to those fans of Alcott’s story as well as relative newcomer’s moviegoer who are unfamiliar with the classic novel tale (its quite easy to digest). Thus, in the end, whether you’re familiar with the story of March sisters or not, Gerwig’s Little Women is wonderfully motion picture triumph that truly does capture the essence of a “coming of age” narrative as well as proving a profound point of breathing new life in a Hollywood remake…in a good and celebrated way.

4.5 Out of 5 (Highly Recommended)

 

Released On: December 25th, 2019
Reviewed On: December 31st, 2019

Little Women  is 134 minutes long and is rated PG for thematic elements and brief smoking

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