“Little Women” has a long cinematic history, starting with the 1917 release which is now considered lost, through the golden era of film and into the ’90s. Jo and her family have been portrayed by everyone from Katherine Hepburn, Elizabeth Taylor, Janet Leigh, to Claire Danes and Winona Ryder. Even with such an extensive history, I had somehow avoided all onscreen variations on the classic Louisa May Alcott novel until recently.
Not knowing what to expect, I immediately fell in love with it the story of the March sisters and their passage from childhood to adulthood. It is a sweet, timeless story that hit home as much of it rang true, reminding me of my daughters (who happened to watch it with me). I actually enjoyed it so much that I continued by watching two additional versions – each with its own charms. So, when a new imagining of the tale from director Greta Gerwig who was fresh off of “Ladybird” was announced this newly “Little Woman” junkie welcomed the news.
Gerwig’s take on Alcott’s book retains much of its core appeal, the March sisters make their way through life, surviving the hardships of supporting the family as their father is away at war, finding romance, and learning about themselves and each other. The sisters include of “Jo” (Saoirse Ronan) – the ambitious writer who strives for success and serves as the film’s protagonist, Meg (Emma Watson) – the oldest and most responsible sister, Beth (Eliza Scanlen) – the shy, peacemaker of the family, and Amy (Florence Pugh) – the youngest sister and artist with a bit of a temper.
The heart of their story remains intact even as Gerwig takes several liberties, some that will probably annoy diehard fans. The most obvious alteration to the tale is the blurring of the line between Jo’s story and the author Louisa May Alcott. She serves not only as narrator but also in a kind of meta way is also writing the story that the film is based on. It is an interesting take and one that for the most part is successfully pulled off, but it also leads to one of the film’s biggest problems. Albeit, as a whole this is not a terrible creative decision, and as things play out you can understand why the decision is made. Buy, to accommodate these changes, the story is told in an often dizzying nonlinear order.
Most prominently seen in the constant time shifts between the period where the girls are younger and about a decade later where they are young women. The problem is not the time-jump itself, it’s the way Gerwig executes it. Unlike other adaptations, all the sisters’ roles are played by the same actresses throughout the film. An odd choice and one I really cannot understand. She relies heavily on hairstyles and costume changes to convey the passage of time.
For some characters, like Laurie (played by Timothy Chalamet), there seems no effort to age him at all. Maybe there was an additional curl in his perfectly groomed coif, but I missed it. It is a problem that a fake mustache could have solved. The passage of time flaw is most glaringly found in the use of the same actress Pugh to portray Amy, even as she ages from 12 to 20, a child to an adult. In this case, the biggest change in her appearance is the use of her bangs, they appear and disappear and appear again. Gerwig relies too much on the audience’s ability to be observant to determine what time period we are in. Sure, there other tipoffs, but nothing strong enough reduces the amount of effort required. Again, it is not impossible, but a distraction for sure.
Even with the missteps, the timeless story at the heart of the film delivers, propped up by strong performances across the stellar ensemble cast – which also includes Meryl Streep, Laura Dern, Chris Cooper, and a personal favorite, Bob Odenkirk. Leading the cast is the brilliant of Saoirse Ronan- she has been on an unstoppable. Here she perfectly captures Jo’s strength, stubbornness, sharp tongue while maintaining a hint of insecurity that keeps her character grounded. She emotes more emotional gravitas through just her eyes than most actors can with their every tool they have available to them. She is a true joy to watch.
On a side note, for those keeping track, this above-mentioned missteps alone should put the kibosh on the Oscar controversy surrounding Gerwig being “snubbed” for a directorial Oscar. Although I adored so much of the film, the handling of the time shifts is kind of broken, a flaw that I assume hurt the experience for viewers new to Alcott’s story. Gerwig is incredibly talented, but let’s present nominations for those who deserve it in their respective years. For example, this year we should have seen a lot more love for Lulu Wang’s “The Farewell” – one of the best films of the year and decade. (It is currently streaming on Amazon Prime). Gerwig will have gold very soon.
I am not a “Little Women” purist – meaning I never read the novel and have no issue with directors’ not adhering to any list preset expectations. In this interpretation, you will find just about everything fans love about the story, the haircuts, fights dancing, love stories and more. The film lives in a world that feels appropriate for that period while also has an air of contemporaneity to it that some audiences will probably find more approachable – nowhere near to extent used on AppleTV+’s “Dickinson,” more of a vibe than anything. It also has some of the year’s best art direction, costumes, and is beautifully shot. Not to mention, Alexandre Desplat’s score, which is stunningly lively, breathing life into scenes that could have been weighed down by a more traditional approach.
For me, the most vital requirement for the success of a “Little Women” film is its ability to make a strong emotional connection. The first three film adaptations I watched pulled at my heartstrings. Gerwig’s, even with a couple of glaring flaws, had me in tears… and I rarely cry. From about the midpoint of the film, something about it brought me to the threshold of tears and kept me teetering across it right into the credits. That is either a sign of a good film or an unstable person. I hope you find it to be the former.
“Little Women” is now streaming and will available on Blu-Ray on April 7th.
This update to Alcott’s novel overcomes its flaws to deliver an emotional and satisfying take on the classic tale.