Little Women (2019): A Fresh Take on a Classic Story

So let’s get this right out of the way; I have never read Louisa May Alcott’s original novel nor have I seen any of the prior adaptations. I think perhaps if I had grown up in an English-speaking country it might have been a different story, but I don’t think Little Women is held in as high regard in Sweden, at least not on the same level as other works of literature. So my knowledge of Little Women and its storyline was limited to something along the lines of “some sisters named March do stuff during or after the American Civil War.” So my decision to see this new adaptation were mostly based on A) Greta Gerwig’s strengths as a filmmaker, B) the excellent cast and C) everyone told me it was terrific, so I decided to give it a go and I was not disappointed.

Much like Gerwig’s last film Lady Bird, Little Women feels very comfortable in the best way possible. It’s comfortable because the characters are all so well-drawn and fleshed out that they start to feel like real people one would encounter in life, and the world the film creates feels equally alive and relatable as well, despite it being a period piece. It also makes everything that much more relatable in the long run, and I found myself rooting for all the characters in the story, perhaps Jo most of all, who is brilliantly played by Saoirse Ronan. She displays the perfect balance of youth, ambition but also affection, and she also captures the spirit of a struggling artist so well that I couldn’t help but root for her character very much like I did in Lady Bird. The film also makes you understand the plight of being a woman in a society in which women are merely expected to marry, have children and support her husband.

That’s not to say the rest of the cast and characters aren’t as well defined or sympathetic. All four of the March sisters (Ronan, Emma Watson, Florence Pugh and Eliza Scanlon) have wonderful interplay between them and, again, feel like genuine people. They all also manage to make the transition from girlhood to adulthood as believable through their mannerisms and acting. Some acting veterans such as Laura Dern, Meryl Streep and Chris Cooper turn in standout performances as usual and you can’t help but be drawn to each of them in their own commanding way. I had also forgotten that Bob Odenkirk would be in this film, and when he finally appears it made me realize how hard it is for me to not think of Saul Goodman whenever Bob Odenkirk is in a non-Breaking Bad/Better Call Saul project (although he’s playing a completely different character here).

The film is structured in a non-linear fashion, starting with the characters as adults and flashing back to the times when they were children transitioning to adults. As I understand it, Alcott’s novel is structured linearly and so have the previous Little Women adaptations, but having seen the story told in a non-linear flashback structure makes me wonder “how could the story be told effectively in a linear fashion?” I mean obviously it can since the book is a classic, but since this is my first impression of it it seems like the most logical route to me. There is one particularly devastating juxtaposition that happens towards the end of the film (I won’t give it away even though it’s technically a 150-year old spoiler) but it couldn’t have been handled better if this was a linear story.

If there is a weakness or two in Little Women for me it would have to be the score and some of the casting choices. The score is done by Alexandre Desplat, an otherwise fine composer, but the score felt a little underwhelming to me and quite indistinguishable from similar period dramas. And on the note of casting; whereas I think Emma Watson is a good actress and she does a very fine job here, I still have a hard time picturing her as a person from the mid-1800s. She strikes me as too modern in her mannerisms and, dare I say it, physical appearance. But these are quite minor complaints honestly that I can live with.

So overall, Little Women proves that Greta Gerwig can direct the hell out of movies and I will anxiously look forward to whatever she does next (although that Barbie movie sounds questionable). It’s also a very nice and genuinely comforting film (of which I think we rarely see these days) and one I think would be suitable for families and especially for younger women looking for role models (in fact the screening I saw the movie in was mostly populated by girls of my age). I also think this’ll be the version of Little Women that coming generations will grow up with and cherish, preserving it as a truly immortal story.

Published by davidalkhed

Co-creator, critic and columnist for A Fistful of Film.

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