The following is a review of Little Women (2019) — Directed by Greta Gerwig.
This is a movie that I have wanted to review for a very long time. As I often bemoan, in Denmark, distributors tend to theatrically release major Oscar-nominated films months after they have been released in the United States. This often means that I miss out on the conversations that these films bring up. It also means that, in this case, I couldn’t discuss the only film nominated for Best Picture that was directed by a woman during awards season for the 92nd Academy Awards. Now that I finally have my hands on a Blu-Ray of the film, which I bought on Amazon UK, I have had the chance to watch and review a film that my peers already have plenty of thoughts about. Coincidentally, the film is now finally being released in Danish theaters just as the UK Blu-Ray arrived.
Greta Gerwig’s Little Women is the seventh film adaptation of the Louisa May Alcott novel of the same name. The film tells the story of the four March sisters – Jo (played by Saoirse Ronan), Amy (played by Florence Pugh), Meg (played by Emma Watson), and Beth (played by Eliza Scanlen). The film details their childhood, their friendship with their male childhood friend nicknamed Laurie (played by Timothée Chalamet), and their experiences as adult women. As they grow up they have to find out if companionship and wealth are necessary for them to be content.
“If I was a girl in a book this would all be so easy.”
Growing up, I never read Little Women or watched any of the film adaptations. I, frankly, did not know what the story was about. As fate would have it, Greta Gerwig’s adaptation became my first experience with the story of the March sisters. I thought Gerwig’s first solo film as a director, Lady Bird, was very charming, but I have to say that Little Women is by far the superior film. This is an outstanding film about sisterhood, owning your own story, and being the woman that you choose to be. Unlike many period pieces, Gerwig’s film feels youthful and energetic. I think it is a warm film that is elegantly made. The costume and production designs are splendid. The film looks amazing. I am also impressed by how timely the film feels, and I, frankly, fell in love with each and every main character. I now completely understand why it is often remade.
Greta Gerwig has made an interesting choice with her adaptation of Alcott’s influential story. Instead of telling the story in chronological order, Gerwig’s film has a fragmented structure. Here we start with Jo March as an adult and jump back-and-forth time and time again to express and showcase the harsh realities of adulthood. Scenes in the past are warm, whereas scenes in the present can sometimes come across as cold or even dispiriting. For obvious reasons, I could not immediately tell whether or not this back-and-forth structure undermined essential elements of the story that may have been stronger in previous adaptations. But what I can say is that I understood the structure of the film early on.
After I watched Gerwig’s film, I actually watched Gillian Armstrong’s 1994 version, on which, I think, Gerwig’s film is a significant improvement. Having experienced these different versions of the same story, I will say that I think the structural high-wire act that Gerwig has performed is a great success. Instead of having a time-jump at the halfway point — like Armstrong’s film had — this exercise of going back-and-forth between the points in time enriches the story and adds to the weight and influence of each plot point. I will also say that the scenes where Jo looks for Beth at the breakfast table are extremely effective, heart-wrenching, and completely worth the structural experimentation. Those moments are, frankly, executed to perfection.
Little Women is extremely well-cast. This film is filled with up-and-coming young actors who are among the very best in their generation, but the veteran actors also impress, and Chris Cooper is particularly good in this film. This is a great ensemble cast. Eliza Scanlen and Emma Watson both deliver solid performances, but the actors who leave the strongest impressions are Florence Pugh, Timothée Chalamet, and Saoirse Ronan. Pugh had an incredible year in 2019. The range that she exhibited across her performances in Fighting With My Family, Midsommar, and Little Women is exceptional, and Amy March is a rich character that she also plays incredibly well. She has a scene with Chalamet’s character in France that does a fantastic job of showcasing Amy’s identity and viewpoint, and Pugh is phenomenal in this standout scene. Saoirse Ronan could be the greatest actress of her generation, and the electric on-screen chemistry that she shares with Chalamet reminds you of other great film romances. Chalamet and Ronan’s scenes together are extraordinary. I really love how driven Jo March is in this movie.
I, honestly, do not have a lot of negative things to say. There are so many different stories that are told and retold over and over again on the big screen, so I don’t think it is a legitimate criticism to say that we don’t need another version of Little Women. Although it is not a new story, Gerwig’s film is relevant and modern without ever feeling anachronistic. Furthermore, the changes that have clearly been made to the story simply work wonderfully. The one thing that didn’t really work for me, especially after having now seen the 1994 version, is the fact that the film expects us to believe that Pugh’s character is a child in some scenes. Although Pugh plays young Amy with the right energy and attitude, she just doesn’t look as young as Kirsten Dunst was in the 1994 film. With that having been said, I do think that the film would’ve lost something if they had cast a different actress to play young Amy since so much of the film’s charm is based on the rapport of the actors that play the March sisters.
It cannot be overstated how impressed I am by Little Women. I understand completely why so many have sung its praises. I, frankly, think this solidifies Greta Gerwig’s position as not just an up-and-coming director but as someone who you have to keep your eye on. This is a remarkable film that moved me deeply. Gerwig controls the effect of her film so impressively, and her structural confidence is exceptional. Little Women is the work of a masterful filmmaker. As Jo would say, it is, indeed, a capital film.
10 out of 10
– Jeffrey Rex Bertelsen.