Taking her lead, no doubt, from that young whippersnapper Orson Welles, writer-director Greta Gerwig (Lady Bird) has wisely waited until her second feature to tackle the classics (no accusations of hubris here if you please!). With Welles it was The Magnificent Ambersons, an adaptation of Booth Tarkington’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel about the decline of a wealthy Midwestern family. Gerwig has opted for another family-focused drama dealing with changing fortunes, Louisa May Alcott’s revered Little Women.
Gerwig’s take on the popular, 1860s down-home adventures of the March sisters—dutiful Meg (Emma Watson), willful Jo (Saoirse Ronan), gentle Beth (Eliza Scanlen), and artistic Amy (Florence Pugh)—is faithful to Alcott’s vision, yes, but it’s also fresh and full of flavor. Timothée Chalamet (Call Me By Your Name) is cast as the girls’ handsome neighbor, Laurie (Chris Cooper plays his father with facial hair aplenty), with Laura Dern excellent as Marmee and a low-key Meryl Streep serviceable as the capricious Aunt March.
Little Women (Gerwig’s film version) flip-flops between the girls’ teen years and young adulthood, a to-and-fro shift of seven years. This proves hard work in the early stages, since little effort is made to age our protagonists. Chalamet, for example, looks identical from one time period to the next, and the only notable change in the sisters is the style—or length—of their hair. But Gerwig, the headliner of such ferocious indies as Maggie’s Plan, Frances Ha, and Damsels in Distress among others, creates such a comforting, easygoing mood, and her performers forge such indelible personas, that this narrative structure becomes less distracting as the film progresses.
Especially effective in Little Women are the familial scenes from seven years ago in which these formidable young women explore and enjoy their artistic passions, share domestic intimacies, and celebrate the bonds of family. Gerwig supports all this on the production end with some subtle stylings—overlapping dialogue (successfully), a little slo-mo (less so), etc. Nicely blending everything together is Yorick Le Saux’s sumptuous photography and it’s exactly that: sumptuous.
Another thing’s for sure: the giddy gaggle that is the mad March clan are an easy lot to love. Both Ronan and Pugh (the latter from last midsummer’s Midsommar) received Academy Award nominations for their fine work in the film; Little Women also picked up Oscar nods for Best Picture, Score (Alexandre Desplat), Costume Design (Jacqueline Durran), and Adapted Screenplay. The last of these Gerwig had better win, if there’s any justice, since she was criminally overlooked in the Best Director category, as were many extraordinary filmmakers and performers, apparently for not being white-male enough—I’ll be skipping the awards ceremony this year.
But back to Gerwig. It takes a lot of guts (and canny confidence?) to adapt a beloved classic for your sophomore directing effort, especially one that has seen so many successful variants on both the big and small screens over the years (all the way back to 1917 it would appear). Fans of Little Women should not be concerned, however. Gerwig and her fine cast and crew have made a timeless tale even more timely.
(c) 2020 David N. Butterworth