LITTLE WOMEN movie poster | ©2019 Sony Pictures

LITTLE WOMEN movie poster | ©2019 Sony Pictures

Rating: PG
Stars: Saoirse Ronan, Emma Watson, Timothee Chalamet, Florence Pugh, Eliza Scanlen, Laura Dern, Bob Odenkirk, Meryl Streep, Tracy Letts, Chris Cooper, Louis Garrel, Jayne Houdyshell
Writer: Greta Gerwig, based on the novel by Louisa May Alcott
Director: Greta Gerwig
Distributor: Sony/Columbia
Release Date: December 25, 2019

This reviewer has long known of Louisa May Alcott’s beloved novel LITTLE WOMEN, and its multiple film, TV and stage adaptations without ever reading/seeing any of them. Therefore, this review of the new iteration, directed by Greta Gerwig from her screenplay, has been written with no basis for comparison.

Strictly on its own merits, then, the new LITTLE WOMEN is appealing, engaging and has a sense of consistent forward movement. We are with the March family, ardent Union supporters and abolitionists, during the American Civil War. Marmee (Laura Dern) oversees the household and four daughters while Papa (Bob Odenkirk) is away in the Army. Eldest daughter Meg (Emma Watson) seeks propriety and romance. Jo (Saoirse Ronan) is a determined budding writer. Beth (Eliza Scanlen) is shy and loves music. Youngest daughter Amy (Florence Pugh) paints and desperately wants Jo’s attention.

Jo is very much our entry into the story, and she’s the main character, but Amy comes in a close second. The love and friction between these two gives LITTLE WOMEN a spine and some unexpected nuance. Jo doesn’t understand why Amy has to horn in on everything, while Amy doesn’t understand why Jo can’t see her fascination and admiration. That’s a story that will probably remain relevant as long as there are siblings in families.

This LITTLE WOMEN is reportedly more feminist than its forebears, and there’s no reason to doubt it. If it doesn’t concentrate as much on racial issues, the movie still makes it clear that the Marches care that their fellow humans are freed from slavery.

The new film examines Jo’s view of herself as a writer. It supports Jo standing up for herself, whether it’s for her right to financial compensation from her editor (Tracy Letts) or her right to remain unmarried, which is contested by practically everybody except maybe her parents. Here, we understand why Jo hesitates to accept even the overtures of her best friend, Theodore “Laurie” Laurence (Timothee Chalamet), who in some ways is her soul mate. Jo is herself, first and foremost, not part of the machinery of making a home for others.

Amy, on the other hand, wants love from all quarters: sisters, parents, the man she’s singled out. She is a talented painter, but unlike Jo, she does not identify with her gifts. It is something to pass the time until the pieces fall into place for her to make the life she has envisioned.

Ronan and Pugh spark off one another in their confrontations, their affection and their confusion with each other. They are also individually intriguing as the characters. The script gives Dern the opportunity to make Marmee more than just a figure of maternal saintliness, and Dern runs with it, giving the woman depth and dimension.

Watson makes the most of the more conventional Meg, and Scanlen gives Beth a secretive dreaminess. Chalamet is good as Laurie, and Louis Garrel is surprisingly fun as a young professor. Chris Cooper is affecting as Laurie’s grandfather, and Meryl Streep makes a strong impression as the March family’s wealthy, bossy aunt.

Gerwig and her production team have an impeccable sense of period and place, drawing us in. This version of LITTLE WOMEN is enveloping, like a good book, new enough to hold our attention, familiar enough to put us at ease in its world.

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