Thursday, February 6, 2020

Movie Review: Little Women (2019)

Greta Gerwig's new version of the much-adapted Little Women injects a bit of 21st century sensibility into the classic story, while lending more urgency and even a bit of meta-fiction to the narrative.  

Starring the wonderful Saoirse Ronan as lead character Jo (a largely autobiographical creation of the novel's author Louisa May Alcott), Emma Watson as her loving older sister Meg, Eliza Scanlen as sickly Beth, and Florence Pugh in a powderkeg performance as the youngest, Amy, Little Women jumps back and forth between the four sisters' harmonious Concord, MA upbringing in 1861 and their splintering apart as young adults in 1868.  As someone already familiar with the story from Gillian Armstrong's 1994 version, but fuzzy on the details from a quarter-century ago when I saw it, I found Gerwig's disjointed approach actually more engaging than a chronological structure would've been.  Instead of waiting for the inevitable story beats I remembered, I had to piece together what was happening in which time period; there are no titles as the film jumps back and forth, it just does.

The film begins with Jo negotiating the sale of some short story work to her New York City publisher, before learning the news that her younger sister Beth is gravely ill, and rushing home to Massachusetts.  She reminisces sporadically about events from seven years earlier, when Jo and her three sisters lived a rather poor but overall content life with their mother, keeping each other's spirits high by performing plays and visiting with their neighbor Laurie (a charming but deeply troubled Timothee Chalamet in a superb performance).

At the same time in Paris, a now-grown Amy reconnects with Laurie, who once proposed to Jo only to be turned down, but now seems drawn to Amy.  Both Amy and her older sister Meg struggle with the idea of marrying for money vs. for love; in the mid-19th century women who married got to keep essentially nothing of their own.  Their money, property and children all became their husbands', thus women like Amy view marriage as little more than a business transaction, while Meg has taken the opposite path, marrying a penniless teacher, content to raise a family on a modest income.  Someone like Jo on the other hand has little use for marriage, preferring to keep her own identity.  This theme is front and center in this version, cleverly woven into the later scenes involving Jo's publishing deal.

The performances are excellent across the board; Ronan brings the same bold precociousness she showed in Lady Bird (also directed by Gerwig), always sure she's on the right path, until she isn't.  Pugh perfectly conveys Amy's early fiery temper and later quiet resentment toward her older sister, each of which comes out in two heart-wrenching scenes.  Scanlen is frail and sweet as Beth, always caught in the middle of her siblings' squabbles.  Watson plays Meg as a devoted, steady hand to help guide her younger sisters through adolescence.  The always fantastic Laura Dern plays their ever-patient mother, while Meryl Streep has a ball as their crotchety Aunt March, widowed and wealthy, urging the girls to find rich men to marry.

The art direction and costumes are gorgeous, recreating the period in vivid, palpable detail.  I found this version a bit more immersive than the polished Hollywood look of the '94 version; everything looks and feels authentic, while the cinematography creates just the right level of intimacy.

Overall Gerwig's take on this old story imbues it with surprising freshness and new layers of modern-day relatability, including current themes of independent-minded women creating something for themselves in a stubbornly patriarchal society.  Whether you're familiar with the story or not, you'll find the visuals, the performances, the chemistry, and the new narrative spin engrossing.

I give the film ***1/2 out of ****.

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