Little Women (2019)
director: greta gerwig | runtime: 135mins | drama, comedy, romance
In the midst of Civil War-time America, Jo March (Saoirse Ronan) reflects on her life with her 3 sisters Meg (Emma Watson), Amy (Florence Pugh) and Beth (Eliza Scanlen).
One thing that has been evidently clear since her debut feature Lady Bird (2017) is that Greta Gerwig has become an important figure in the recent quality boost among cinema. With her next feature it seems the pressure hasn’t gotten to her, adapting a beloved book and turning a period piece into a modern conversation and also being as faithful as possible. What seems effortless with such a strong cast is the quality in scenes and relationships, building each ‘little woman’ as an individual and letting their own stories become a core part of the main family narrative.
Even out of the individualism there isn’t many movies that build family as quick as this film, using the scenes between the girls and Marmee March (played wonderfully by Laura Dern) to build such personality and closeness. Even in the simple scenes of interaction Gerwig has written each character to be an unforgettable presence on each person they meet, as well as leaving an instantaneous print on us as the audience. While the family dynamic isn’t without it’s flaws there is such lovability that comes from it, the atmosphere that Gerwig creates in the March household is infectious, one that puts them in the memory and heart of a lot of people. More specifically Mr. Laurence (Chris Cooper) and his anti-establishment grandson Laurie (Timothee Chalamet).
One of the reoccurring themes during Little Women is the idea of marriage, as Jo profusely mentions her lack of interest in matrimony throughout which goes on to throw a spanner in the works for tradition, and also her blossoming relationship with also free-spirited Laurie. Great chemistry aside, their relationship first seems like an obvious conclusion, but with Jo’s views so strong it just never happens, leaving Laurie to marry Amy March. This little love triangle isn’t the centerfold of Little Women, but the talent that Ronan, Chalamet and Pugh all exude it’s impossible not to see this as an added beauty in an already layered story. But as Gerwig so importantly points out throughout the film, it’s less about romance and more about the quaint little life of the March family, using love as a conflict within family rather than a focus.
It also acts as a wonderful difference between the girls, with Jo so anti-marriage, whereas Amy and Meg are very much for it. But these differences make each specific dynamic work fluidly, with Meg and Jo being the eldest they are close as ever, Amy feels as though she is forever in Jo’s shadow both romantically and creatively, and Beth is in many respects is the glue that keeps the entire group together. A wholesome character who’s kindness seeps through continuously. Gerwig somehow builds all of this within the first 20 minutes, but more importantly it’s how she uses the transitions to evoke a feeling of change, going from the warm coloured flashbacks to the harsh bleakness of the near future.
The transitions become more frequent as the story leads to it’s most devastating, but it never uses melancholy as it’s overall message, rather as an excuse to bring her characters together despite going their separate ways. But the shining star of the entire film is it’s ending, and without spoiling anything let’s just say that Gerwig’s decision to keep within the film’s themes and try to reflect reality, and in doing so makes this one of the most faithful adaptations you’ll ever see. Rather than give-in to the cheap romanticism that Jo has been so against throughout the movie, Gerwig would rather leave the question of fiction vs. reality dangling in your face. As Jo sits with book publisher Mr Dashwood, they discuss the future of the book, Jo is adamant that there is no need for a romantic ending, but Dashwood knows what sells, and when we are eventually given the cheap version, we then get to see a delighted Jo watching her work being created, and in many ways this is the most romantic thing you’ll see all film.
With the ending heading towards to a predictable conclusion, it seemed Little Women may come up short, but when you realise what Gerwig is doing you start to appreciate her genius even more. Subverting and transitioning at a ‘plot-twist’ pace all while keeping within the confines of her own world. It’s beautifully executed and speaks volumes about the film’s intentions, and start to finish we experience the March family in all their flaws and charisma. Thanks to a pitch-perfect cast as well (Ronan and Pugh especially), Gerwig continues to cement herself as a leading figure in film-making today.
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