Little Women (2019): Review
The writer/director Greta Gerwig set out to make a new rendition of Little Women - one for today’s audiences. The strength of the movie is the high energy it exhibits from start to finish. It moves and has rhythm, but I doubt a viewer who hasn’t seen the last version and/or read the book could figure out who’s who and were the story is going.
As in the book, it focuses solidly on Jo March (Saoirse Ronan). She is front and center in this adaption. She’s the sister that we love and care for the most. Of course, it’s Ms. Ronan playing Jo that makes it special. We see her first in New York where she meets a man in her New York boarding house who wants to help her. She experiences a moment of Deja vu, which causes her to think back to seven years earlier at home in New England when everyone was home for Christmas except Father March (Bob Odenkirk) who is fighting in the Civil War. The entire picture is shot in ocher, an earthy pigment, providing a romanticized atmosphere associated with period pieces. The look imitates candlelight which does give it an aged touch, but it makes it hard for the audience to see what's happening on the screen. The interior scenes are so dark it is hard to recognize one character from another.
Now, let's consider the male protagonist of the film, the rich neighbor's grandson, Laurie played by Timothée Chalamet (Call Me By Your Name, Beautiful Boy). It is made clear that wants to marry one of the March daughters. However, his persona does not seem mature enough for the responsibility of marriage. He appears to be a fluff ball. The actor either missed his mark on capturing the essence of this character, or took poor direction from Ms. Gerwig. Which ever the case, it's difficult to empathize with such a weak entity who seems to whine more than draw the attraction of the audience.
When this film is deconstructed it’s very artistic, but for viewers it is tangled and confusing. The costumes are lovely and the scenery is stunning. Laura Dern and Saoirse Ronan carry the picture. Chris Cooper lines up the story and keeps it going in one direction. However, it appears that Ms. Gerwig has stretched her talents too far. Her previous movie, Lady Bird was a tour de force, but this film is not at that level. Her script in this case is overwrought and more auteur than comprehensible. She shows us her art but not for the audiences’ sake but for art’s sake. Excitement is woven into the plot, but so much context is lost. It’s like drinking champagne at the party and forgetting why we are celebrating. We love the girls and see them change from children to women but what are they living through? Their story arcs are missing. We don’t really know who they have grown up to be. The 1949 version directed by Mervin LeRoy (Random Harvest, Gypsy) sets the bar pretty high. The cast of that all-star version (June Allyson, Peter Lawford, Mary Astor, Margaret O'Brien, Janet Leigh, C. Aubrey Smith, and Elizabeth Taylor) is spot on and never misses.
Children need to read the book or see the 1949 film version, before seeing this movie. A boy of about ten years old sitting near me had to keep asking his mother what was going on? Young people can feel the energy and excitement and like Mrs. March and the girls, but there is so much more to Louisa May Alcott’s wonderful story. It would be a shame to miss out on it.