Saturday, December 28, 2019

Tonight's Movie: Little Women (2019)

This morning I saw the brand-new, highly praised version of LITTLE WOMEN (2019) which was written and directed by Greta Gerwig.

It's a handsomely produced film which I quite enjoyed, and in due course I plan to place the movie alongside the five (!) other film versions of Alcott's story which are on my DVD shelves. That said, I feel the movie has been overpraised by critics, who I sometimes think may fall into a trap of being so thankful for a well-made, "different" movie that they overhype it and ignore the flaws -- LA LA LAND (2016) being but one notable example in recent years.

It's of note that the producers of this new version include some of the same names attached to the exceptionally fine 1994 version, including Denise Di Novi and the '94 screenwriter, Robin Swicord.

Writer-director Gerwig clearly worked hard to find a new and fresh way to tell a familiar story which would be different from the '94 film, as well as the several other prior versions, using "non-linear" storytelling. Unfortunately, what this current film then gains as a curiosity factor it loses with the lack of an emotional through-line and relationship development. While the shifting of the story back and forth through time occasionally allows for effective "how we got from there to here" comparisons, particularly with Beth's illness and later death, more often there are missed opportunities.

I'm sure the story needs little introduction, and indeed, that's one reason the film took a very different storytelling tack. Rather than beginning with Meg (Emma Watson), Jo (Saoirse Ronan), Beth (Eliza Scanlen), and Amy (Florence Pugh) growing up during the Civil War, the movie begins later in their lives, when Jo is a struggling writer in New York, Meg is a wife and mother of twins, and Amy is traveling in Europe with Aunt March (Meryl Streep), where she's reunited with her next-door neighbor from Concord, Laurie (Timothee Chalomet).

The movie jumps back and forth in time for all of its 134 minutes, until finally landing at the finale with all of the characters gathered at Plumfield, the school Jo opened in the mansion left to her by Aunt March. I had no trouble following along, as I might be more familiar with Alcott's novel than any other, not to mention having seen so many film versions, but I wondered if anyone new to the story -- if there is such a person! -- would have some difficulty keeping up.

Ronan, reviewed by me in BROOKLYN (2015) and LADY BIRD (2017), is a gifted actress who is one reason among many to see the film. Her fiery Jo is perhaps more conflicted than any interpretation I've yet seen.

However, Jo's relationship with Professor Bhaer (Louis Garrel) is one example of where any relationship development is lost. In this film, Bhaer is depicted as a critic of Jo but not a supporter; he tells her he doesn't care for her gory newspaper stories, but while he honors her with a frank opinion, he doesn't build her up -- other than lending her books -- nor does he suggest writing what's in her heart. That is shown to come completely from inside Jo as she comes to terms with Beth's passing.

Likewise, when the professor shows up in Concord near the end, it's not because he was deeply moved by her new manuscript and has showed it to a publisher; he simply dropped in to see her. The filmmakers clearly wanted to give Jo that popular word "agency" and place her completely in charge of her book's development and publication, including negotiating financial terms. And given that Jo's main scene with the Professor ends in a quarrel, why are we supposed to believe she loves him when he suddenly shows up out of the blue at her home?

This lack of relationship development is similarly seen in her sisters' romantic relationships, I suspect because of the filmmakers' desire to focus so strongly on the women and not have them "defined" by their relationships with men.

Consequently, when Amy tells Laurie she's always loved him, how do we know this? Scenes such as Laurie visiting Amy every day she stays with Aunt March during Beth's illness are completely gone, and so is any foreshadowing such as the scene in the '94 version where Laurie promises the child Amy to kiss her before she dies. (It's also a bit awkward that in the "adult" scenes, Chalomet still appears childlike next to Pugh's very adult Amy, despite Chalomet being exactly a week older than Pugh in real life.) The sequence with Amy staying with Aunt March instead entirely focuses on the two female characters, with Aunt March encouraging the idea that Amy must marry well; this sequence thus loses the chance to build up Amy's relationship with Laurie and hint at what is to come.

The low-voiced Pugh is particularly worth seeing with a very different interpretation of Amy, who has a steely edge to her along with her love of beauty; when she burns Jo's manuscript it's not so much a flight of angry passion but a very calculated move to hurt. It was unfortunate, though, that this Amy, of all Amys, didn't get to play a scene in Europe with Amy letting Laurie know in no uncertain terms he needs to turn his life around; other than a line about him working for his grandfather, her disappointment is briefly communicated with her walking away from him in disgust when she sees him drunk at a dance. When Laurie returns to Amy after Beth's death, we have no idea that he's worked to improve himself for her.

I was also left wondering how we know that Meg is happy. She tells John (James Norton) she's happy because she's his wife, yet there isn't a single scene with a warm fireside family moment to contrast with scenes depicting exhaustion and the frustration of longing for things they can't afford. We hear Meg's words of affirmation, but where are the actions to back it up?

Finally, Scanlen's Beth is little more than a cipher spoken of by others. I found Chris Cooper's portrayal of Mr. Laurence one of the best in the movie, but since we never get very far inside Beth's head, he's the one who lends the most emotion to their scenes.

I have enjoyed every version of LITTLE WOMEN I've seen for different reasons, so I try not to get too much into direct comparisons of the various productions. That said, last year I revisited the 1994 version at UCLA and was blown away to be reminded just how good it was. The '94 film is perhaps the closest to this new version in terms of having something of a "revisionist" feel in terms of feminism and reducing or eliminating the Christian principles threaded throughout the novel, with its references to PILGRIM'S PROGRESS and the like.

Given these similarities, I note that while, as I wrote last year, the '94 film "wrecked" me, leaving me composing myself in the bathroom before I could drive home, I sat through this one dry-eyed. I'm not sure that's ever been the case for me before when seeing any version of LITTLE WOMEN. It was interesting intellectually but didn't touch me emotionally.

Having spent time on my criticisms, I enjoyed the film for its cast and the beautiful settings; like the '94 film, the movie does a good job depicting the warm love of family, along with more practical issues such as just how cold it was in an uninsulated house during a Massachusetts winter. I also like, particularly at this stage of my life, the opportunity to understand more of Marmee's perspective; she's well played here by Laura Dern.

There's a nice sequence with Jo and Beth on the beach which I only recall being part of the 1978 TV version, and I also thought it was a fresh choice to have the film end at a point further forward in time than the novel, taking a peek at what would be the setting for LITTLE MEN (though the film does ignore that most of the students at the school were boys).

I also found the script entertaining simply because it was different; the film may not have greatly moved me, but I did enjoy taking in and analyzing the choices made. Despite its length, the movie was never dull and will merit future viewings, which I suspect will yield further insights.

The cast also includes Bob Odenkirk as Mr. March, with Tracy Letts as Jo's publisher and Jayne Houdyshell as Hannah, the housekeeper.

LITTLE WOMEN was filmed by Yorick Le Saux and scored by Alexandre Desplat.

Parental Advisory: This film is rated PG. It is completely family friendly.

The trailer is here. There is also an official website.


Blogger Jocelyn said...

Hi Laura, thoughtful analysis and I agree with much of what you've written. I did enjoy the movie overall very much but felt it wasn't perfect. I agree with you that Saiorse Ronan was a nuanced, three-dimensional and believable Jo. She's a real talent. I also loved Amy's arc, as I feel she needs to be understood more than just a cardboard cut-out spoiled brat, even if one doesn't completely like her.

Like you I felt that Beth's character was underdeveloped and her connection with Jo was not really explored other than implied. Her death was a sad but not devastating moment in the film. I loved your comment about Timothee Chalomet being too young looking later in the film - exactly! He didn't mature enough and I kept thinking how would a newly-grown Amy, looking for a wealthy man but also one to be proud of, be attracted to him later in the film?

I did actually love the flashback narrative. It was problematic in that it had the effect, as you say, of hindering relationship development. Could there have been a solution? I don't know, but I think Gerwig was making more an (auto)biographical study of Alcott, seen through her life from her position of writing the novel. So everything really was about what brought Jo/Louisa to her position - she was reflecting back on life episodes to build her novel as opposed to the film being a straightforward narrative of 4 sisters. And even the character of Bhaer was an add-on, not meant to be developed because Alcott supposedly was forced to write him in to marry off Jo, which was hinted at at the end of the film. And it would explain Jo being singly the agent of her own success. These were deliberate choices, I believe, but I can see where it would be narratively jarring or unsatisfying for some.

I enjoyed most of all the prior adaptations. If you haven't seen it, you may enjoy this video analysis/comparison of the four major film versions

5:20 PM  
Blogger Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

I've not seen the film yet, but probably will when I can. Like you, I've seen all versions and have enjoyed them all, and also have a special spot in my heart for the 1994 version, which I thought was very well done, so obviously carefully and lovingly created. What I especially liked about it was how they managed to reflect the real-life figures of Alcott and her mother behind the characters of Jo and Marmee, particularly in the depiction of Marmee's ladylike but feisty advice. The only thing wanting in that film, I feel, is that Winona Ryder's Jo was somehow softer than the irascible, loving and loyal, awkward, but decidedly thorny character as written in the book. Your description of Saoirse Ronan's Jo as being firey and conflicted is intriguing.

Your analysis of this new version is fascinating and I know I will take that with me when I eventually do see this film. Your mention of a beach scene reminiscent of the 1978 TV version (which I also remember), reminds me as well of the 2005 stage musical starring Sutton Foster as Jo, Maureen McGovern as Marmee, and Megan McGinnis as Beth. Though I did not see it on Broadway, I did see clips on TV and YouTube, and bought the CD cast album. They also did the beach scene with a song "Some Things are Meant to Be." Talk about needing to compose yourself; it's soaring and heartbreaking at the same time.

I often wonder what Alcott, who could be quite objective and unsentimental about her most famous work, would think of all these versions of her book. I suspect her first reaction would be to lament lost royalties. Her second reaction might very well be one pride.

Thanks for this fine assessment of the newest version of LITTLE WOMEN.

5:55 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

Jocelyn, thank you so much for taking the time to share your own extended thoughts on the film, I really enjoyed reading it.

I was interested not only in our areas of agreement but your thoughts on Gerwig's choices and intent, seeing everything through Jo's eyes. As I wrote, I suspect I'll have fresh insights next time I see it, and I'll keep your thoughts from the third paragraph above in mind when I watch it. It really was interesting contrasting the scenes of the publisher pushing Jo to add a happy ending to her book with the awkward add-on scenes of Bhaer at the end, someone we hadn't given much thought to since early in the movie.

I haven't seen this video and have opened it to watch later in the day. Thank you so much! I'm sure I'll enjoy it.

Best wishes,

5:58 PM  
Blogger Laura said...


Thank you so much for your thoughtful comments. I'd be particularly interested in what you think of Ronan's interpretation. I hope when you have the chance to see the film you'll share your thoughts, either here or in a post at your site! I'd love to link to it if you write one.

I had completely forgotten about the LITTLE WOMEN musical, which I've never seen, but one of my daughters has the CD and I remember that song! It's been a long time since I heard it, and I'm so glad you mentioned it.

I appreciate your kind words!

Best wishes,

7:28 PM  
Blogger Hamlette (Rachel) said...

This is exactly the review I needed to read. I've been on the fence about whether to go see this quick before it leaves the theaters in my city, but now I know that if I don't manage to see it until it's on DVD, I will be okay. Thank you.

5:35 AM  
Blogger Laura said...

Hi Hamlette! I'd love to know what you think when you do get the chance to catch up with it. It's a particularly interesting film to discuss thanks to the unconventional storytelling.

Best wishes,

9:01 AM  
Blogger Hamlette (Rachel) said...

The unconventional timeline stuff is one of the things that really makes me want to see this. But I already love the 1994 and 1978 versions, so I'm not exactly feeling the desire for another one? Especially when I haven't seen the 1933 or 1949 versions yet.

3:42 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

The 1933 version, though some feel it's "creaky," is the one that comes closest to me for how I envisioned the book when I first read it. That said, they all have something to offer. The '49 is so colorful, and I love the cast; that version also re-used the lovely music from the '33 version.

Of the five versions I've seen, the new one is my least favorite but I still enjoyed it, despite my reservations, just because I love the story so much.

Waiting in the wings for me to watch is the recent BBC version with Angela Lansbury as Aunt March. I deliberately held off on watching it when I learned of the new theatrical version so I wouldn't see *too* much LITTLE WOMEN in too short a time, but I'm curious to see that one in the future as well. I love the idea of Lansbury in that role -- and how fun is it that her fellow '40s MGM contractee was Aunt March back in 1978?

Best wishes,

3:51 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home

Newer›  ‹Older