With a perfect cast and some impressive filmmaking from Greta Gerwig, “Little Women” makes a case for being one of the best films of 2019
The world of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women has been dissected and discussed since the first book was published in 1868, inspiring generations of young women to be writers and painters and free thinkers. In the centuries since publication, there have been dozens of adaptations of the work, from movies to TV and beyond, including three different versions this decade alone. Even if you haven’t read the book or seen the movie, there is a good chance that you’ve heard the ending spoiled in an infamous episode of Friends. But with all of that foreknowledge, Greta Gerwig seems to have created what will go down as the best rendition. This newest version of Little Women might just be the perfect cinematic take on the March sisters.
Told predominantly from the perspective of second-eldest daughter Jo (Saoirse Ronan), Little Women follows the four March sisters over nearly a decade of their lives, as they come of age in the background of the Civil War. Jo, a tomboy, wants nothing more than to become a successful writer. Meg (Emma Watson), the eldest, is a talented actress with an eye for the neighbor’s tutor. Beth (Eliza Scanlen) is the kind-hearted by shy daughter with an aptitude for piano playing. And youngest daughter Amy (Florence Pugh) is a seemingly bratty but nevertheless passionate painter, growing up specifically in Jo’s shadow. As the March sisters grow older, they deal with their caring mother, Marmee, (Laura Dern) and cold Aunt March (Meryl Streep) and the trials of life in the 1800s.
Already politically ahead of its time when published, the novel Little Women has aged into something a bit harder to deal with. Yet with some slight translations and a few tricks of editing, Greta Gerwig has made the story of these four sisters into a modern masterwork. At times it feels as operatic and hopeful as Titanic or The Godfather, an epic of storytelling that is centered on four young women just attempting to live.
Much like Gerwig’s phenomenal Lady Bird in 2017, the film paints an incredibly complex look at the relationship between women. Two tender scenes between Ronan and Dern late in the film feel like particular gut punches, and Meryl seems to treat every actress she shares a scene with to a masterclass of talent. But it is the updates to the relationships between the sister that most amazes. It takes elements from the books that have often been excised from movies to build the characters of Beth and Meg into stronger leads, and it puts a new spin onto Amy. No longer a pain in her sister’s sides, she is a human.
Gerwig has turned Concord, Massachusetts into something like a winter village, with every building possessing a story and every inch decorated with a perfect design. The art and costume decoration is incredibly precise, with each outfit telling you as much about the character as it does about the period. The outfits worn by Timothee Chalamet in particular (as Jo’s one-time suitor Laurie) feel so in character. But even smaller details like rips in Jo’s dresses or ink on her hands tell you more about the world then words alone could do.
It would be an underestimation to call Lady Bird tame, but the risks taken by Gerwig with Little Women feel intentional. The dialogue overlaps like something out of a Robert Altman movie, and the supposed lead characters are never perfect angels. But more dangerous are the changes to a novel that is 150 years old, things that will surprise even those who have read the book cover-to-cover a dozen times.
Much can be said about Ronan and Dern and Streep and the other actresses in the film, but Florence Pugh — fresh off of Midsommar and Fighting with My Family and soon to be in the new Black Widow movie — shines. Amy has often been a pest and without a character arc, but clever editing and perfect acting turn her into a second lead. Emma Watson and Chalamet are doing a bit less to sell the film than their co-stars, with Watson overcoming some mediocre writing from the book and Chalamet playing his role far too modernly. Everyone else is a gem, however, including smaller roles Broadway icons Tracy Letts and Jayne Houdyshell.
This is the perfect Christmas movie, sure to please nearly everyone in the family. I look forward to the day in a generation or two when children are raised on this film, looking up to Saoirse’s Jo as she writes until she collapses, or striving to be as confident as Florence’s Amy. The March sisters have come to life many times before but never has it felt quite so urgent to the world of today. Praise Greta Gerwig for figuring out how to do so.
Little Women comes to theaters Christmas. Written and Directed by Greta Gerwig. Starring Saoirse Ronan, Emma Watson, Florence Pugh, Eliza Scanlen, Timothee Chalamet, with Laura Dern and Meryl Streep.