Monday, 20 January 2020

Movie Review: Little Women (2019)


An adaptation of the classic Louisa May Alcott book, Little Women is a coming-of-age tale with a focus on women carving out identities while grappling with personal and societal expectations and economic realities.

The film unfolds non-linearly across multiple time zones and locations. In simplified form, the March sisters are from a relatively poor Concord, Massachusetts family and growing up in the shadow of the Civil War. Jo (Saoirse Ronan) is fiercely independent and an aspiring writer. Meg (Emma Watson) loves acting and is a romantic at heart. Amy (Florence Pugh) is a painter and wants to marry well. The youngest Beth (Eliza Scanlen) is a talented pianist. With their father (Bob Odenkirk) serving in the war, Marmee (Laura Dern) instills in the girls a strong sense of service and selflessness.

The Marchs are neighbours of the wealthy and kind Mr. Laurence (Chris Cooper), whose grandson Theodore (Timothée Chalamet) becomes friends with the sisters and falls in love with Jo. She sets out to seek her fortune as a writer in New York, where she meets publisher Mr. Dashwood (Tracy Letts) and clashes with academic Friedrich Bhaer (Louis Garrel). Amy heads to Paris for a cultural trip with Aunt March (Meryl Streep). Meg marries a struggling tutor and starts a family. But a sickness will pull the sisters back home to confront unexpected futures.

The sixth cinematic adaptation of Alcott's novel, the 2019 version is a sprawling and ambitious effort infused with a feminist edge. Clocking in at an overlong 135 minutes, writer and director Greta Gerwig takes her time to fully define the four sisters as rounded characters, and chases down their dreams, trials and tribulations on the path to womanhood. Along the way the sisters bicker, fight and support each other, all underpinned by warm foundations of familial love.

Gerwig structures the film as a dizzying jumping exercise, restlessly bouncing between various points of history in the lives of the four sisters. As a result Little Women rarely flows, some scenes spending a matter of seconds in one time and place before the next scene leaps to somewhere else with someone else at a different time.

But the fine work of the talented cast and the investment in characters does pay off in the final third, where the sometimes scattered narrative puzzle pieces start to come together. The film achieves poignant peaks of genuine emotion built on the discrete strengths and weaknesses of the March sisters, and Gerwig presents a satisfyingly wide array of personal achievements mixed with shades of disappointments, all built on honest passion.

While the emphasis on feminism is sometimes speechy and jarring, here it means the freedom to choose a future vision to pursue, and to defend that choice. And while no two dreams are alike, the sisters pragmatically understand their future, like their past, involves compromise and is not meant to be perfect. Gerwig also places admirable emphasis on economics as an essential part of future plans. Balancing the romantic pursuit of love, marriage's role as an economic benefit emerges as a theme.

Little Women enjoys stellar production design, the film recreating interiors and exteriors of the mid to late 1800s with an easy sense of place and time. This is a period piece unafraid to march into the open, as the March sisters stride into a post-war world with every intention to help define it.






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