Updated: Feb 9, 2020
The novel “Little Women” was originally written in 1868 by Louisa May Alcott. It was an immediate success and has remained popular ever since. It has been adapted for the big screen eight times, in 1917, 1918, 1933, 1949, 1978, 1994, 2018 and now 2019. It seems like it would be a tough challenge to make something 150 years old, and with such a rich history, feel contemporary, at least without updating the story (even then; the little seen 2018 version did that to a very mixed reception). Somehow, with the latest Little Women, Greta Gerwig has pulled it off. She has created a movie that is both of its time and relatable in ours. It is a story about the bond between sisters, love and the difficulty of being an ambitious, independent woman at a time when society made very little room for that. It is a delightful, moving, wonderfully-acted movie that gets its message across while never taking its focus off the March family.
The story follows Meg, Jo, Amy and Beth March through various trials and tribulations, jumping between them as teenagers and as young women trying to discover their own places in the world.
Little Women (130 minutes, not including the end credits) is about personality, desire and individuality, so I will break it down by looking at the major characters.
Writer Jo March, the second oldest, is played by three-time Oscar nominee Saoirse Ronan as a free-spirit, constantly fighting back against the role the world demands she fill. Ronan is one of my favorite current actors because of her ability to so fully inhabit each character like it is the first time we are seeing her onscreen. Jo bears some similarities to Ronan’s prior collaboration with Gerwig, 2017’s Lady Bird. They both value their individuality highly. But Jo is less combative, more loyal and loving. Even with society insisting she must, she has no interest in marriage. This despite the obvious affection of next-door neighbor Laurie (played with mischievous charm by Timothée Chalamet). She wants to live without having to rely on a man for her identity. Ronan is great again here, creating a woman who would not feel out of place today without ever becoming an anachronism. She is lovable, though you can see why her family finds her exasperating.
Painter Amy, the third oldest, is played by Florence Pugh, who gave one of the most emotionally powerful performances of 2019 in the horror movie Midsommar. She is jealous of her older sisters and much more interested in the idea of marriage than Jo is. Their wealthy Aunt is always telling them they need to marry someone rich in order to live a better life (she is played by Meryl Streep as a practical woman who speaks bluntly and with experience). Amy seems the most likely to take her advice. Amy’s inner conflict adds to what the movie has to say about womanhood and sisterhood. She has moments of frustrating ignorance, yet Pugh is able to display a complexity Amy seems to struggle with.
Actress Meg, the oldest, is played by Emma Watson, who has not quite found that post-Harry Potter role letting her show the full range of her talents. She is good here as the mature sister, bringing more depth than that simple description suggests. The character is the second most interesting in the story (behind Jo), in part due of the matter-of-factness Watson brings to her. Meg has a speech defending her life choices to Jo that gains power precisely because Watson does not deliver it as a statement. It is a strong scene that defines Meg and, in a way, the entire movie.
Musician Beth, the youngest, is played by Eliza Scanlon, who was very good in the HBO miniseries Sharp Objects. She has the least to do among the sisters, being more important for who she is than what she does. She is shy and sweet and develops a nice friendship with Laurie’s Grandfather (played with kindness by Chris Cooper), but she is mainly useful for setting up some important dramatic developments, as opposed to having the richness of her sisters.
Little Women shines as much as it does because of how clearly Greta Gerwig sees her characters. She does not force them to speak for their gender (a minor problem in the recent Bombshell). They speak only for themselves in a way that allows the finished product to make points about gender roles or love without hammering its audience over the head with it. The performances are really good, lifting already strong material to impressive heights. I ended 2018 by reviewing Holmes and Watson; I conclude 2019 with Little Women. This is a far more satisfying way to close out a year.
4½ out of 5
Cast: Saoirse Ronan as Jo March
Emma Watson as Meg March
Florence Pugh as Amy March
Eliza Scanlen as Beth March
Timothée Chalamet as Laurie
Laura Dern as Marmee March
Meryl Streep as Aunt March
Chris Cooper as Mr. Laurence
Directed and Written by Greta Gerwig