Little Women bleeds period drama without cramping

Movie Review: Little Women

Greta Gerwig brings her own drum to the March family saga, and miraculously, she finds new beats in Louisa May Alcott’s 150-year-old American bestseller.

Little Women

4/5

Starring: Saoirse Ronan, Laura Dern, Florence Pugh, Emma Watson, Eliza Scanlon, Timothée Chalumet, Tracy Letts, Bob Odenkirk and Meryl Streep

Directed by: Greta Gerwig

Running time: 2 hrs 15 mins

Rating: Parental Guidance

Opening wide December 25, 2019

By Katherine Monk

I didn’t think we needed another take on Little Women. We’ve seen several takes on Louisa May Alcott’s classic since George Cukor first brought it to the big screen in 1933 with Katharine Hepburn making a name for herself in the role of the outspoken heroine, Jo March. Mervyn Leroy employed June Allyson for the 1949 version, and in 1994, Gillian Armstrong gave Winona Ryder the plum character assignment.

Now, Greta Gerwig brings her own drum to the March family saga, and miraculously, she finds new beats in the 150-year-old American bestseller. Gerwig says she, like so many young women who read the two-part book since its publication in 1868 and 1869 — from J.K. Rowling to Ursula LeGuin — found a kindred soul in the young heroine who wanted to be her own person in a world that demanded female conformity. “Little Women has been part of who I am for as long as I can remember,” Gerwig says in the production notes. “There was never a time when I didn’t know who Jo March was, and she was always my girl, the person I wanted to be and the person who I hoped I was.”

Strong, independent and fiercely committed to becoming a meaningful writer, Jo is determined to make her mark. She’s on the hero’s quest, yet unlike male characters cast into the role, she’s still deeply connected to her family over the course of her journey. In fact, her role within the March household is one of the central dilemmas she must overcome, because she’s been trained to believe society genius springs only from the loins of solo suffering. After all, tradition says the man must walk away from his family to pursue his higher cause.

“There was never a time when I didn’t know who Jo March was, and she was always my girl, the person I wanted to be and the person who I hoped I was.” – Greta Gerwig

Alcott saw it differently, and so does Gerwig. Life in Little Women may be full of suffering, feeling misunderstood and solo sorrows, but it constantly resists the forces of isolation. Steeped in the pathos of the years immediately following the end of the Civil War, Alcott brought unexpected depth to a tale of four sisters growing up with their mother in New England. The family dynamics could be tense, even raging, but love was always a palpable and central force, a blood bond that could never be broken.

So in a world where family gatherings are often torn asunder by the hurricane forces of modern politics, it may well be time for another wave of Little Women, so that we can all be lifted by their ability to find shelter in each other, as well as resourcing the surrounding structures.

So in a world where family gatherings are often torn asunder by the hurricane forces of modern politics, it may well be time for another wave of Little Women, so that we can all be lifted by their ability to find shelter in each other…

The former talent is what makes the novel timeless: Families sharing all the shades of love together. The latter is what makes each version tailored to its specific time as directors inevitably interpret the social forces at play through the lens of their own experience and their own generation. If the central struggle in the book is Jo’s wish to be independent and creative without becoming an impoverished social outcast, her approach to the institution of marriage is either considered a tragedy or social salvation.

Gerwig doesn’t push to either side. Instead, she shows us the dazzling confusion of youth, meted out in measured doses of mature reverie. She fully absorbs the material as her own, manipulating the timelines and juxtaposing the two parts to evoke a sense of memory and a continuous stream of thought and theme. Yet, she also remains entirely true to the words Alcott recorded with her pen so long ago. She keeps the language and the period details intact, but there’s nothing slavish about this homage to the classic. If anything, it feels entirely unbound.

She keeps the language and the period details intact, but there’s nothing slavish about this homage to the classic. If anything, it feels entirely unbound.

Saoirse Ronan’s presence is a big part of that feeling. The young star’s pale skin and sky blue eyes let her float through every frame. Yet her spirit always feels connected to the earth’s deep throb, regardless of what character she’s inhabiting. As Jo, Ronan rounds some of the gender edges, sidestepping full tomboy with a hint of post-Madonna hobo chic, which means her resistance can go a little deeper than her clothing choices.

That’s not to say clothing, fashion and how each March woman approaches the matter of dressing isn’t important. It is. It had to be, because in the late 19th century, it was one of the few ways women could express themselves in a personal way to the world. Clothing was handmade and tailored to each person, and they were typically made by women.

Alcott, herself, had been a paid seamstress before she became a published author. So all the details about yards of tragically unaffordable silk, dresses for balls, and the threadbare garments of the poor spoke to female readers on a different level. They still do, and it’s where Gerwig makes her 2019 version reflect our time by letting the clothes feel like clothes — something you live in — instead of costumes. Gerwig has loosened the seems, and given us something more unstructured, something that breathes.

It’s subtle, but it speaks volumes. Jo’s clothes mirror those of her youthful suitor, Laurie (Timothée Chalumet), and in one random flashback, we see her lift his hat onto her head in a playful gesture that warms her with a hot breath of remembered intimacy.

So much of Gerwig’s success lies in her symphonic arrangement of all the elements. It’s the script, the  fluid blocking, the pace of dialogue and visual design — in addition to the potent ensemble of actors, each of whom brings a slightly different range of emotional colour to the mix, but always remain part of the same rainbow, the same collective arc of female experience.

Where other directors have drawn thick lines between the good and bad traits of each character,  with poor Amy usually carrying a burdensome load of faults, Gerwig blurs it all by letting the moments bleed through time.

The effect is slightly surreal, and it’s amplified by Yorick LeSaux’s cinematography, which finds another quiet level of context by recording the action on celluloid — a nod to the analog craftsmanship of the era and its now-quaint trades (there’s a whole book binding sequence that’s shot with all the sensuousness of a sex scene) — as well a slight blur and glow that comes from old-fashioned film.

The effect is slightly surreal, and it’s amplified by Yorick LeSaux’s cinematography, which finds another quiet level of context by recording the action on celluloid — a nod to the analog craftsmanship of the era and its now-quaint trades…

It all comes together to cast a nostalgic spell, but Little Women never feels lost in time. It feels alive, and more importantly, emotionally believable at every turn. Previous versions always fell prey to the perceived melodrama of the book, giving us a few very dark chapters before paying off with a forced romantic ending. In short, they all felt stuck in a Victorian time warp and removed from modern everyday experience.

Gerwig brings Alcott’s youthful American sensibility to every gorgeously textured moment, crafting something that feels immediate and recognizable as real life — a quilt of memories stiched together by the threads of love, a modern piece of Americana that affirms and recreates a beloved treasure of the past.

@katherinemonk

THE EX-PRESS, January 3, 2020
To read more movie reviews by Katherine Monk, check out the Ex-Press archive or sample career work at Rotten Tomatoes.

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Review: Little Women

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Summary

4 Score

Greta Gerwig brings her own drum to the March family saga, and miraculously, she finds new beats in the 150-year-old American bestseller. She fully absorbs the material as her own, manipulating the timelines and juxtaposing the two parts to evoke a sense of memory and a continuous stream of thought and theme. Yet, she also remains entirely true to the words Alcott recorded with her pen so long ago. She keeps the language and the period details intact, but there’s nothing slavish about this homage to the classic. If anything, it feels entirely unbound. -- Katherine Monk

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