Review: Little Women — Movies for the Rest of Us with Bill Newcott

Greta Gerwig has created an artful, impeccably acted, and unexpectedly thrilling film that has stubbornly elbowed its way to the top tier of Bill Newcott’s favorites of 2019.

Florence Pugh, Saoirse Ronan and Emma Watson in Greta Gerwig's LITTLE WOMEN.

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Little Women

⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐

Rating: PG

Run Time: 2 hours 15 minutes

Stars: Saoirse Ronan, Emma Watson, Florence Pugh, Eliza Scanlen, Laura Dern

Writer: Greta Gerwig (based on Louisa May Alcott’s novel)

Director: Greta Gerwig

 

When I was a kid my family had a card game called Authors. It involved playing cards bearing the likenesses of 10 famous writers — four cards per writer, each card annotated with the name of one of that writer’s most famous works.

The object of the game was to collect complete sets of each author and their four selected works. So by the time I was 7 I knew James Fennimore Cooper wrote, among other things, The Deerslayer; Charles Dickens wrote The Pickwick Papers; Alfred, Lord Tennyson wrote Charge of the Light Brigade, and Washington Irving wrote The Alhambra.

But knowledge is not the same as experience, and I’m not proud to say I never read most of the books whose titles I competed with my brothers and sisters to collect: Not Sir Walter Scott’s Kenilworth, not Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s The Courtship of Miles Standish — and certainly not the works of the lone woman in the deck, Louisa May Alcott.

Likewise, I came kicking and screaming to Little Women, the latest screen adaptation of Alcott’s most famous novel, the story of four Civil War era sisters, each carving their unique life path in 1860s Massachusetts. One needn’t be a literary historian to sense the importance of the novel; an account of how a nation of women — left on their own as the men folk marched off to kill each other — planted the seeds of personal independence that would within decades give rise to women’s suffrage and, a half-century after that, the women’s liberation movement.

Still, that didn’t mean I needed to subject myself to two hours of flouncing teenagers, disapproving parents and callow courtiers. But now writer/director Greta Gerwig has gone and forced the issue, creating an artful, impeccably acted, and unexpectedly thrilling film that has stubbornly elbowed its way to the top tier of my favorite films of 2019.

Gerwig’s casting is perfect from the top down: Saoirse Ronan — she of the transparent blue eyes and ice princess face — is Jo March, the first among sisterly equals; a free-spirited writer who sets the tone of rebellion, no matter how subtle, in the March household. A master interpreter of steel-willed young characters in films like Brooklyn and Lady Bird, Ronan makes Jo a force to be reckoned with — or simply acceded to.

So strong is Ronan’s performance, the roles of Jo’s three sisters could easily have faded in its shadow, but Gerwig smartly enlists a powerful lineup: Emma Watson (the Harry Potter series), prim and lovingly critical as oldest sister Meg; Florence Pugh (Lady Macbeth), reclusive and endlessly observant as youngest sister Amy; and Eliza Scanlen (Sharp Objects), fragile yet infuriating as the sickly sister Beth.

Laura Dern plays the girls’ mother, Marmee, a product of her era, watching with distracted bemusement as her daughters rise up against the social norms that have defined her lot in life. Dern’s is the most challenging of the film’s roles — Marmee clearly shares many of her daughters’ sentiments, but she’s so institutionalized her daughter Jo is blown away when she calmly confesses, “I’ve been angry almost every day of my life.” It’s one of Little Women’s quietly shocking moments, and Dern handles it with effortless sleight-of-hand.

There’s yet another woman in the Little Women’s lives: the spinster Aunt March, played with masterful understatement by Meryl Streep (and any time you can get this far into a movie review before you mention Meryl Streep, you know the other performances are remarkable). It’s a thankless role, in place primarily to represent the old ways that are clearly being swept away by the tide of progress. But Streep refuses to let the old girl go quietly: Aunt March is a powerful woman by nature of her personal fortune, and Streep captures her subversive glee as she ruthlessly wields influence through selective generosity.

A few men populate the corners of Little Women’s world. Chris Cooper is a drawling delight as the March family’s wealthy neighbor, a man of genuine good grace and generous spirit. Bob Odenkirk puts in a late appearance as the March family patriarch, back from war. From the audience’s perspective, he’s something of an interloper. We’re happier to spend time with Tracy Letts as Jo’s publisher, a guy who doesn’t particularly like the way women are progressing in the world, but who knows a good story when he reads one.

Otherwise, the males that populate Little Women are shallow pretty boys who in any other movie would be to-die-for hunks, the objects of much female scheming and desire. Here, they skitter about, desperately hoping to find favor from these clearly superior women, living in a hellish fear of rejection (that often comes, just as they’d dreaded).

The dreamlike cinematography of Little Women is courtesy of Yorick Le Saux, providing the unique brand of otherworldly beauty he’s brought to haunting films like Personal Shopper and I Am Love.

Add the sumptuous touch of Alexandre Desplat’s splendid score, and Little Women winds up a practically perfect film.

I must dig up that old deck of cards to see what else I’ve been missing.

Featured image: Florence Pugh, Saoirse Ronan, and Emma Watson in Little Women (Photo credit: Wilson Webb; © 2019 CTMG, Inc. All Rights Reserved)

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