'Little Women': Film Review

Ageless.
12/25/2019

Saoirse Ronan reunites with 'Lady Bird' writer-director Greta Gerwig to play the heroine of Louisa May Alcott's American classic about four sisters forging their identities in the years after the Civil War.

Graduating from an intimate portrait of the rocky rites of passage of contemporary female adolescence to a considerably larger-scale ensemble piece depicting the path to maturity of four sisters in 19th century Massachusetts, Greta Gerwig shows that her own assured transition to writer-director with 2017's Lady Bird was no fluke. Her gratifying take on Louisa May Alcott's Little Women brings freshness, vitality and emotional nuance to source material which has been etched for generations into the popular imagination, shaking up the chronology to reinvigorate the plot's familiar beats.

Sony's ideally positioned holiday release should prove a potent family draw, with special appeal for young female audiences either discovering the story for the first time or returning to it with pleasure.

Is this a definitive screen version of the frequently filmed novel? Perhaps no more so than Gillian Armstrong's warmly satisfying 1994 retelling, which starred Winona Ryder in one of her most underrated performances as the spirited aspiring author Jo March. But Gerwig skillfully navigates the line between respecting the story's old-fashioned bones while illuminating the modernity of its proto-feminist perspective, only occasionally leaning into speechy advocacy of a woman's right to self-actualization beyond marriage. Her cast may be slightly bound by their canonical character types, but there's lovely ensemble work here, captained with coltish physicality and hard-charging pluck by the luminous Saoirse Ronan as Jo.

Gerwig's screenplay begins with Jo already living independently in a New York boarding house, sending money home to her family from tutoring jobs. The turning point that will shape her future comes when she sells her first story to Mr. Dashwood (Tracy Letts), editor of the Weekly Volcano, though despite the giveaway of her ink-stained fingers, Jo insists she's submitting the work "for a friend" and asks that it be published anonymously. She accepts Dashwood's "alterations," and agrees to convey the advice that if her friend intends to write more stories with a female protagonist, to make sure she's married by the end. "Or dead. Either way." In Letts' bone-dry delivery, it's as if Jo's ambition is being rewarded and punished at the same time.

Jo's vain youngest sister Amy (Florence Pugh, perfection) is likewise introduced well into her development, studying painting in Paris while serving as companion to their wealthy Aunt March (Meryl Streep). Encased in imposing frills and finery, including antique Fred Leighton jewels, no less, Streep is clearly having a ball as the imperious snob who snorts with disapproval about how "the decadents have ruined Paris" and does her best to hide her affection for her nieces behind her narrowed gaze and all-purpose disdain. Amy is being courted by a well-heeled Brit, but a chance encounter with family friend Theodore Laurence (Timothée Chalamet), known as "Laurie," suggests her childhood crush on him hasn't abated, despite her show of sympathy over Jo's rejection of his marriage proposal.

Eldest sister Meg (Emma Watson) also is encountered not as a girl but as a young woman, already married and living in a cottage on modest means with her schoolteacher husband John Brooke (James Norton), Laurie's former tutor. Aside from a brief glimpse of her playing the piano, the delicate fourth sister, Beth (Eliza Scanlen), remains relatively unexplored in the early parts of the film, for reasons that will be clear to anyone familiar with the novel.

Before jumping back seven years to parallel the sisters' experience as young adults with their adolescence in Concord, Gerwig plants the seeds of romance between Jo and her boarding house acquaintance Friedrich Bhaer (Louis Garrel), a language professor from France (switched from Germany in the novel). But that blossoming mutual attraction gets interrupted when he bluntly criticizes one of her stories of duels and adventures, telling her to write about something she knows. Her hostile reaction shows how unaccustomed Jo is to real-world rejection, but Friedrich's honesty ultimately will serve him well.

The volatile mix of high spirits, camaraderie and jealousy in the all-female March household is nicely drawn, with the girls' mother Marmee (Laura Dern) presiding over her noisy brood with forbearance and love while their father (Bob Odenkirk) is away serving as a chaplain in the Civil War. Aunt March is all too willing to point out how his poor handling of their finances has left them in reduced circumstances, urging the sisters to marry well. But Marmee is more intent on setting the example of charity, encouraging her girls to give to those less fortunate.

Some scenes of the sisters clowning around performing plays written by Jo border on strained preciousness. But the bonds of a tight-knit family are played with infectious intimacy, while the explosions of anger feel bracingly true to life, notably one fierce tangle as Jo retaliates against a spiteful act of rebellion by the petulant Amy. Gerwig nails the differing degrees to which ideas of romance consume the March girls, from the conventional storybook excitement of love to the practicalities of societal expectation, all of which get brushed aside as each sister follows her heart.

The most beloved episodes of the story all are given commensurate breathing space and confident handling — the burned manuscript, the near drowning, the fancy debutante ball attended by Meg, the alarmed departure of Marmee for Washington when her husband is taken ill.

The more shattering arc is the fate of Beth, whose sweet, gentle nature is played with understatement and affecting serenity, even at her lowest point, by Scanlen. Those saddest developments are tempered by some gorgeous scenes, as we watch Laurie's widowed grandfather Mr. Laurence (Chris Cooper) respond with tenderness to Beth, inviting her to play the piano in his stately drawing room whenever she wishes, and then presenting her with the instrument in a gesture of heartwarming generosity. Cooper is quite wonderful at exposing the muted humanity of this intensely private man, who has suffered terrible loss. The actor opens him up by infinitesimal degrees, starting with an intensely moving shot as Mr. Laurence sits unobserved on the stairs, weeping quietly while Beth plays.

Gerwig really shows her deep feeling for the material in the exquisitely rendered scene of Laurie's proposal to Jo, captured by French cinematographer Yorick Le Saux against the crisp greens of a rolling hillside, with a classic white New England church the sole visible structure, standing mockingly in the distance.

The chemistry between Ronan and Chalamet (who appeared together in Lady Bird) is charming throughout — reversing the traditional gender types, she's all striding certainty and determination, quick to anger; he's loose, lollopy and mellow, his reed-like body dancing around her as he flirts and teases without entirely surrendering his playful aloofness. When he finally declares himself, we ache for Laurie, watching his face and posture crumble as he desperately spurts out futile words, pleading his case before absorbing the crushing blow of her diplomatic, yet firm refusal. No disrespect to the women giving vividly inhabited performances, but the remarkable Chalamet's surprising choices make him the real standout here.

It's a testament of Gerwig's affinity for Alcott's characters and the smart craftsmanship of her narrative reassembly that, as much as we root for Jo and Laurie to cement what is clearly a sparky match of minds and contrasting temperaments, the story's twisty romantic outcomes feel just right — albeit gently brushed with melancholy for what might have been. Even more central to this retelling is Jo's emergence as a writer, with her nascent career given tangible form as she watches the printing presses and book binders produce the first edition of the novel that gives the film its title. The dual-track chronology also makes it clearer than ever that Jo's memories of her upbringing fuel the discovery of her true voice as an artist.

Among the large cast, Watson somewhat fades into the background, possibly because the pretty, vivacious girl makes way so early for the thoroughly good wife who married for love, not material comfort. Dern at times seems a tad contemporary as Marmee, but then that could partly be because her delectable skewering of a quintessential L.A. type in Marriage Story remains so fresh in my mind. But even with limited screen time, all the actors register as fully formed characters.

As always, the most complicated character is Amy, a selfish brat redeemed by her unquestionable love for her sisters. Pugh (also terrific this year in Midsommar) continues to prove herself a distinctive talent, managing all the tricky contradictions of the role with disarming grace, humor and a willful streak that grows almost imperceptibly into wisdom. There's also welcome character insight in her absence of self-pity when Amy makes the decision to give up painting after realizing she will never be a great artist. Her refusal to do anything by halves gives the character an innate strength that counterbalances her flightier qualities. And even at her most obnoxious, she remains endearing, getting the movie's funniest line when she gasps at Jo's hacked-off locks, exclaiming, "Jo, your one beauty!"

There's never any doubt, however, that Ronan is in command, both in terms of driving the story and of the exalted position she holds within her family. Costumer Jacqueline Durran outfits her in androgynous period chic — shirts and ties, top coats and waistcoats, with tricorne hats and military regalia for the playacting scenes. She's full of fire, with her wild tresses flying in the breeze, blithely dismissive of the rules that say the most a young woman should aspire to is love and marriage. And there's a lovely intergenerational exchange in which Marmee confesses to Jo that she, too, has a temper that wells up inside her, but she has learned to control it. Rather than urging Jo to do the same, she admires her daughter's unfiltered forthrightness. Ronan's Jo is imbued with such natural authority that we even share her staunch belief that she can will the ailing Beth back to good health.

Aside from minimal use of direct-to-camera address, Gerwig foregoes fussy directorial flourishes, instead shepherding an elegant film in the classical mold, often with a painterly look. It's also pleasingly paced through its two-and-a-quarter-hour run time, with nimble camerawork and editing that suggest the vigor of youth and the urgent sense of discovery that comes with young adulthood. Alexandre Desplat's lush score is laid on a little thick, but even that seems appropriate for a story whose sentiments are always grounded in genuine emotion. Gerwig has taken a treasured perennial of popular American literature and reshaped it for a new generation, which should give the captivating film a long shelf life.

Production company: Pascal Pictures
Distribution: Sony
Cast: Saoirse Ronan, Emma Watson, Florence Pugh, Eliza Scanlen, Laura Dern, Timothée Chalamet, Meryl Streep, Chris Cooper, Tracy Letts, Bob Odenkirk, James Norton, Louis Garrel, Jayne Houdyshell
Director-screenwriter: Greta Gerwig, based on the novel by Louisa May Alcott
Producers: Amy Pascal, Denise Di Novi, Robin Swicord
Executive producers: Adam Merims, Evelyn O’Neill, Rachel O’Connor, Arnon Milchan
Director of photography: Yorick Le Saux
Production designer: Jess Gonchor
Costume designer: Jacqueline Durran
Music: Alexandre Desplat
Editor: Nick Houy
Casting: Francine Maisler, Kathy Driscoll

Rated PG, 135 minutes