Little Women (Greta Gerwig, 2019) 2½ out of 4 stars.
There is much to admire in Greta Gerwig’s cinematic version of Louis May Alcott’s 1868 novel Little Women – the latest in a long line of adaptations dating back to the silent era – not the least of which includes the fine cast, headlined by Saoirse Ronan (Brooklyn). As Gerwig amply proved in her 2017 directorial debut, Lady Bird, she more than knows her way around camera and actors, and creates many delightful and moving scenes, throughout. Unfortunately, as screenwriter, some of her script choices are less successful, including the decision to temporally juxtapose the book’s two halves, cutting back and forth across a span of five years or so in a manner possibly confusing to those not familiar with the original plot. This conflation of time is made more opaque by the youth of the performers, who barely age between edits, muddying the who, what, where and when of it all. Still, other parts of the new structure work well, bolstering the source text’s feminist roots. Did we need this new Little Women? No, but it’s enjoyable enough to watch, so why not?
Gerwig begins the tale with Jo March (Ronan), the second of four daughters, making a living as a governess in New York City and earning money on the side as a writer of sensational stories (published without her name on them). The extra funds are not just for her, but to help support her family in Massachusetts. A budding romance between Jo and Friedrich Bhaer (Louis Garrel, Godard Mon Amour), the German tutor of the house, turns sour when he offers frank feedback on her creative efforts, effectively telling her that she should write what she knows, rather than what she thinks people want to read. Though spoken from a place of respect, it’s too much for Jo, and when she hears that younger sister Beth is sick from complications of a past bout of scarlet fever, she leaves for home, abandoning her New York post and the man who would be her suitor (perhaps forever, perhaps not).
From there, we cut to the backstory of how we got there, revisiting the late childhood of the four March sisters. There’s eldest Meg (Emma Watson, Beauty and the Beast), then Jo, then Beth (Eliza Scanlen, HBO’s Sharp Objects) and youngest Amy (Florence Pugh, Midsommar), all overseen by matriarch Marmee (Laura Dern, Marriage Story), with father away fighting in the American Civil War. Poor, but not penniless, they are generous to those in worse straits than they and attract the attention of nearby wealthy widower Mr. Laurence (Chris Cooper, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood), in whose care has been left his orphaned grandson, Laurie (Timothée Chalamet, Beautiful Boy), a contemporary of the girls. Soon, Jo and Laurie are intimate friends.
Once the characters and relationships established, Gerwig jumps around as she wishes, joining Amy in Paris on a trip with her rich Aunt March (Meryl Streep, The Laundromat) – where she meets up with a depressed Laurie, whose marriage proposal to Jo was rejected – and events past and simultaneous. As Beth gets ever sicker, we revisit the first time she fell ill. To and fro, forwards and reverse. It is not hard to understand why Gerwig might want to shake up the narrative, given the many previous iterations, but this commendable urge serves mostly to reduce, rather than increase, dramatic tension. When we see Beth’s earlier bedridden state and the accompanying fears of those around her, we know that she survives (then), given that we have watched her in later moments. Similarly, we are forced to make constant calculations with each transition before we recognize our surroundings, instead of focusing on the story at hand, since no one looks distinguishably older or younger in the two different times.
The cast makes the film, however. Ronan is her usual brilliant self, always engaging, but it’s Pugh who steals the show, her Amy blossoming from petulant child to sensitive adult in profoundly affecting ways. I also continued to enjoy Gerwig’s framing device of Jo the writer transforming her onscreen experiences into her first novel, which is Little Women, itself. As a celebration of female ingenuity and perseverance, this Little Women is as powerful as any of its predecessors, even if it fails to distinguish itself structurally. That’s something, at least.