Little Women - what could go wrong? Nothing it seems.
4 out of 5
If the purpose of a film is to create a believable world that draws you in, to give you characters you can believe in, entertain, tell a story and make you forget the real world, then writer and director Greta Gerwig has ticked all the boxes. Further, she has assembled a stellar cast for her adaptation of Louise May Alcott's book.
This is Gerwig's third time in the director's chair and she has succeeded again. Cynics might ask - how could she go wrong with a beloved book, a cast of wonderful actors and a ton of goodwill. Very easily is the answer. But what she has done here is not only take the text of the book, the story known to millions, but she has added some of Louisa May Alcott's personal writings and letters to round out the narrative and provide additional motivation beyond mere storytelling.
I have to confess, the book, Little Women is not one I've read. It just was not on my radar growing up. The only relationship I have with the story is from the costume-drama variety that often grace our small screens. So I was aware of the bare bones of the story, the basics of who lives and who dies. With no real preconceptions, other than my high expectations of the director and cast, I have to say I enjoyed the film. I laughed, I cried and I was swept along by the story.
Like another costume drama released this year, Downton Abbey (which I had never watched) I was instantly immersed in the world of the March family. Within moments, I knew who everyone was, their role and almost their entire arc. The story is well paced and well told. Saoirse Ronan plays Jo March, the central character. Her sisters are Meg (Emma Watson), Amy (Florence Pugh) and Beth (Eliza Scanlen). Their Mum is played by Laura Dern and father by an all-too-short screen-time for Bob Odenkirk. Meryl Streep turns up as Aunt March. Timothée Chalamet is Teddy and his father is played by the wonderful Chris Cooper. Tracy Letts, fresh from Le Mans 66 is here too as the editor to whom Jo tries to sell her stories. That's some role call.
I'm pleased to say that Saoirse Ronan strikes gold again, in a role that seems tailor-made for her feisty, "women are not just for love" performance. She is the clear stand-out performance. Emma Watson proves she is more than a wand-wielder, again. She imbues Meg with a frailty, and almost melancholic acceptance of her role in life. She deserves recognition too. Florence Pugh is simply marvelous. I loved her in this year's Midsommar and she continues to be a wonderful actor. Eliza Scanlen's role as Beth felt a little under-developed compared to the other three sisters. I'd like to have seen her developed more. I loved Timothée Chalamet in last year's Call me By Your Name. Here, he is a little two-dimensional, forever storm-tossed on the ocean of the sisters' emotions.
Laura Dern and Meryl Streep both bring their experience and understanding. While giving the kinds of performances that only they can give: a twitch of the eye, a turn of the corner of the mouth - conveying everything we need to know - they allow their younger stars to shine. Tracy Letts is wonderful as the acerbic editor. My special mention goes to Chris Cooper as Mr Laurence, Teddy's father. His kindness to Beth is heart-warming. The scene where he comes down the stairs upon hearing Beth playing the piano is masterful. Without saying a word, by using his body - he conveys such raw emotion. I cried.
Gerwig's direction is not perfect. Some of the flashback sequences were a little confusing, taking me a few moments to ground myself again, unlike The Irishman which told a story over decades but used set dressing to instantaneously ground the audience. A minor quibble in an otherwise beautiful film.
Go see this and be uplifted.
One wonders what she will do with next year's Barbie?