Little Women Movie Review: Greta Gerwig puts her own charming and subversive spin on an enduring classic
Greta Gerwig's innovative adaptation of Louisa May Alcott's novel works more often than not and is a lovely addition to the long list of retellings of this classic
Two-thirds of the way into Greta Gerwig's adaptation of Little Women, there's a beautiful scene between Jo March and her mother. It's not part of Louisa May Alcott's novel and is Gerwig's own addition. Jo (a sublime Saoirse Ronan) confesses to her mother (Laura Dern) her frustration with how women are viewed by society. "I'm so sick of people saying that love is all a woman is fit for," she cries. Then she adds something heartbreaking in its honesty: "But I'm so lonely!" This scene is the film's thesis in a nutshell. That it's not part of the original story is quite telling. For, Gerwig's Little Women paradoxically works best when it takes liberties with the core and structure of Alcott's story.
Take, for instance, the non-linear screenplay that begins in the second part of the book, when the girls are all older, and then switches back and forth with little to no notice between that and their happy, childhood days (only the change in lighting — golden for the childhood and the more drab blue-grey for the other — and the appearance of the actors cluing us in on which period we're looking at). It enables Gerwig, who is both writer and director of the film, to heighten the contrast in the lot of the March family in the two timelines and the add focus to the mirroring of certain events. It's a clever tool to use in a film, where unlike a book, we cannot flip back the pages to compare for ourselves. This also allows the devastating impact of the death of a certain beloved character to truly sink in.
Director: Greta Gerwig
Cast: Saoirse Ronan, Emma Watson, Florence Pugh, Laura Dern, Timothée Chalamet
Producers: Amy Pascal, Denise Di Novi, Robin Swicord
Where Gerwig's film falters is when it lends itself to direct comparisons with the book — a problem nearly all cinematic adaptations of books face. I felt this most with the casting of certain characters. Louis Garrel, for starters, seems too young and too French to be the solid German Professor Friedrich Bhaer. It was likewise a bit hard to buy Emma Watson as a mother of two (this, though, may be my own Harry Potter hangover). Laura Dern fares better as Marmee, for the most part, but there's one scene — when Laurie first brings the girls home after Meg twists her ankle — in which she seems to be more Laura Dern playing bohemian mother of raucous household, with her "I like baking in the middle of the night" and "Here, have a scone." Thankfully, that scene is a one-off and for the rest of the movie, she's sober, sensible Marmee.
Timothée Chalamet fits young Laurie to a T, but seems ill at ease as the older one. Florence Pugh, on the other hand, has the reverse problem. She tries a bit too hard to make us buy her as spoiled 12-year-old Amy. Her older Amy is more believable, though quite a bit different from her book counterpart. Gerwig even uses her as a mouthpiece for this one monologue about how marriage is an economic proposition. While I agree with the sentiment, and I've no doubt Alcott would as well, it's too clearly the director speaking to us, rather than Amy to Laurie. And this yanks us out of the movie. I did, however, like the callback to this when Jo tells her publisher that marriage is an economic proposition even for fictional women.
There are some cursory nods to the evil of slavery and treatment of black people, which again are simply instances of the writer-director making clear her views on the matter (Marmee confessing to still being ashamed of her country, for example). It is inelegant and reeks of tokenism. Gerwig would have done much better to either tackle these issues properly or simply let them be.
What she has done beautifully in Little Women is play up the feminism, as evidenced by the scene I opened this review with. She has made some wise changes to the original story to this end. One of these is, in fact, to the story's end. The wonderful subversion of that climax made me forgive almost all the issues I had with the film up until then. The way Gerwig not only corrects an obvious flaw in Alcott's story, but uses that to reinforce her own film's conceit, is simply inspired. And for that alone, if nothing else, I am quite glad of the existence of this seventh adaptation of the enduring classic.