July 28, 2020

“Little Women” (2019) Review: Some Stories are Truly Timeless

Note: This review was originally published in The Cape Cod Chronicle in December 2019.

Greta Gerwig, writer and director of 2017’s critically-acclaimed Lady Bird, has thrown her hat into the ring and adapted Louisa May Alcott’s classic 19th century novel Little Women for the big screen for the seventh time.

Gerwig’s adaptation stars Saoirse Ronan, Emma Watson, Florence Pugh and Eliza Scanlen as sisters Jo, Meg, Amy and Beth March, respectively. The film follows them at two different points in their lives: once during the Civil War, as they come of age, and then seven years later, as they’ve matured and are moving into the next phase of their lives. The non-linear style of storytelling is a strength of the film, and it’s very interesting to watch how the different timelines complement each other by answering some questions, but raising others.

Of course, the all-star cast doesn’t end with the core four. Laura Dern plays the girls’ mother, Marmee, with a sympathetic and genuine performance; Timothée Chalamet (who gained popularity in 2017 after starring in Call Me By Your Name) plays Laurie, a love interest (but we’re not quite sure as to whose he actually is) with as much charm and wit I expected from a young actor of his caliber. Finally, Meryl Streep has a supporting role as Aunt March, who droll humor and sarcastic, yet wise, depth to the film.

As readers of the novel will know, the story has its triumphant moments, but also its pitfalls, for its characters. It’s the definition of an emotional rollercoaster, with the entirety of the nearly two-and-a-half-hour runtime spent developing the characters into perfectly rounded and appealing protagonists.

The standout in the cast (and, of course, the most central of the main characters) is Ronan as Jo, who brings such emotion and reverence for the source material that makes her a character that’s not only interesting to follow, but also easy to love and care for. Ronan’s performance, much like hers in Lady Bird, is the epitome of Oscar-worthy.

Jo is Alcott’s alter ego, but Gerwig doesn’t just focus on Jo’s journey as an author; instead, the film digs into Alcott’s own history, growing up in Massachusetts (in fact, a majority of the film was shot on location in Concord). The film makes suitable use of the geography, accompanied by a careful attention to color and its clever use to distinguish between the alternating timelines.

Gerwig’s Little Women is a modern classic, filled to the brim with excellent acting, beautiful set pieces, stunning costumes and largely sympathetic and likable characters. The extended runtime isn’t as distracting as I expected, with the pacing generally staying manageable and tonally sound.

It’s a superb adaptation of the novel, that proves some stories are truly timeless. [Grade: A-]

Director: Greta Gerwig
Writer: Greta Gerwig
Starring: Saoirse Ronan, Emma Watson, Florence Pugh, Elizabeth Scanlen, Timothée Chalamet
Rated: PG-13 for thematic elements and brief smoking
Available: On Demand
Fun Fact: Greta Gerwig was six months pregnant with her first child when filming ended, and went into labor 48 hours after turning in her rough edit. She hid her pregnancy during filming so well that nobody on set knew she was pregnant.

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