Little Women (2019)

Little Women
Director: Greta Gerwig
Writer: Greta Gerwig
Based on: Louisa May Alcott’s novel
Cast: Saoirse Ronan, Emma Watson, Florence Pugh, Eliza Scanlen, Laura Dern, Timothée Chalamet, Tracy Letts, Bob Odenkirk, James Norton, Louis Garrel, Jayne Houdyshell, Chris Cooper, Meryl Streep
Seen on: 31.1.2020
[Here are my reviews of the 1994 and the 2018 versions.]

Meg (Emma Watson), Jo (Saoirse Ronan), Beth (Eliza Scanlen) and Amy (Florence Pugh) are sisters, living with their mother Marmee (Laura Dern) as their father is off fighting in the war. Their lives are spent working or studying and trying to help the even poorer people in the neighborhood. In their sparetime, they like to play creatively. When their neighbor Mr. Lawrence’s (Chris Cooper) grandson Laurie (Timothée Chalamet) moves in with his grandfather, he quickly finds himself included with the girls. Together, they navigate life’s ups and downs.

There are many, many things I really love about this version of Little Women. I enjoyed myself thoroughly as I watched it. And at the same time, there are so many narrative choices here that I hate that it really speaks to the film’s quality that I still liked it a lot.

The film poster showing the four Marsh girls (Saoirse Ronan, Emma Watson, Florence Pugh, Eliza Scanlen) looking out a window.

When I go into what bothered me about this version in a second, and probably at some length, the impression will probably arise that I hated the film. I didn’t. Not at all. The performances were really good, the film looks lush and gorgeous, and the women really come together as a family. The casting is almost perfect (the part that wasn’t, you’ll hear about right away) and there wasn’t a boring second here. That I take issue with the film stems not from the fact that it’s bad, it comes from the fact that I love the source text and that there were a couple of narrative choices that just didn’t work for me.

Okay, so here we go. The first bit is relatively easy to explain: as much as I love Florence Pugh, casting her as a twelve-year-old was a serious error in judgement. I mean, she plays Amy at that age very well, but she simply cannot pull of that age anymore. Especially since they didn’t even really bother changing her appearance (like her hair style or her dresses) between her being twelve and her being twenty. It just gets weird when Laurie comments on how much she changed and grown.

The four Marsh girls (Saoirse Ronan, Emma Watson, Florence Pugh, Eliza Scanlen) at the beach.

The second bit was the way they handled the Jo’s romane here. It’s no secret that Alcott was pressured by her publisher to give Jo a romantic ending and that she wrote Bhaer against her own wishes. But she managed to write a romance that fit the character regardless and Jo and Bhaer make a good couple at the end. In this film, they include the pressure that Jo as a writer write a romantic ending for her own characters. And since what she writes is autobiographical, they mix that up with her love own love story with Frédérique (Louis Garrel). In the process it felt to me like they ruined both the romance and the criticism of romance.

They did Frédérique seriously wrong here, cheapening the way they get together with a cliché chase to the train station, and – despite telling the story not chronologically and thus introducing him from the very start (a choice I was generally neutral about, though it would have provided the perfect opportunity to get away from the Jo/Laurie angle) – failed to build him as a character at all.

Jo (Saoirse Ronan) and Laurie (Timothée Chalamet) looking at ech other intently.

If they wanted to say that this lackluster romance was just included for the sake of the publisher – why not have Jo tell the story like that while the images show us how she is happy on her own. Of course, it would have been valid for her for Jo to want romance and still take a stand against the pressure – but she never wanted romance up until the very end, and that it’s okay to want romance is a point made by the other sisters’ stories.

It it s an interesting and very valid point to make that for centuries a happy ending for a woman had to include a romance with a man, but this is not the way to criticize it. Especially since they also did Jo a disfavor when they have her considering taking Laurie’s proposal. (Even though that scene itself is great, probably the strongest moment in Ronan’s performance.)

The four Marsh girls (Saoirse Ronan, Emma Watson, Florence Pugh, Eliza Scanlen) walking through town.

I also had a problem with the fact that they simply skipped Laurie’s rehabilitation. It is such an important point in the novel (and to a lesser extent in the other films) that he needs to get his act together before he can even consider being worthy of Amy. No trace of that here. Instead, like the bad guy in a horror film, the “Amy was always in love with Laurie” reading of her character makes a re-appearance when I was really hoping it was over and dealt with. At least, he doesn’t promise child!Amy that he will kiss her someday.

And finally, there was a cringeworthy white guilt scene where Marmee tells a black woman (the only black woman in the entire film, btw, played by J.M. Davis, I think) that she is so ashamed of the USA – because of slavery, I guess. Given that the film otherwise ignores the existence of POC entirely, this scene feels completely misplaced.

So, as you can see, I have many thoughts about this film and a lot that didn’t work for me as they went about it. But at the same time, it is one of the fresher takes on the story, it’s very much its own film – more so than, for example, the 2018 version even though that one is set in the present day. And despite everything, I really enjoyed myself and the film. Even if it doesn’t seem like that when I talk about what didn’t work, Gerwig gets a lot of things right, too – like boiling the heart of Little Women down to a simple observation: that we need to shift our perception of what important stories are to be able to tell the stories of women.

Three of the Marsh girls (Saoirse Ronan, Florence Pugh, Eliza Scanlen) with their mother (Laura Dern) at Meg's wedding.

Summarizing: Engaging, to say the least. But not everything Gerwig tried, works.

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