FILM REVIEW – LITTLE WOMEN. With Saoirse Ronan, Emma Watson, Timothée Chalamet, Chris Cooper, Meryl Streep. Written and directed by Greta Gerwig. Rated PG for thematic elements and brief smoking. 134 minutes.
LITTLE WOMEN, Louisa May Alcott’s novel about the four March sisters coming of age in mid-19th century New England, is a classic of popular literature and one that has inspired numerous adaptations for film and TV. Greta Gerwig’s new version is an impressive response to the question whether we really needed another one.
For those coming in fresh, the story centers on Jo March (Saoirse Ronan), Meg (Emma Watson), Amy (Florence Pugh), and Beth (Eliza Scanlen) and their mother Marmee (Laura Dern), who are trying to keep the home fires buring while their father (Bob Odenkirk) is off at war. Each has their own story, with Jo wanting to be a writer, Meg falling in love, Amy wanting to paint, and Meg wanting to play the piano. Gerwig gives us insight into the characters by not presenting the narrative in a linear fashion but letting us see how the women they are becoming were formed in their childhood.
Money is tight in the March household, but Marmee teaches the girls that there are people far worse off than they and ought to help those less fortunate. In turn we see some of the wealthier people in their lives helping them, from the benevolent neighbor Mr. Laurence (Chris Cooper) to the sharp-tongued Aunt March (Meryl Streep), a wealthy widow who seems to determined to help one of the sisters… after a fashion.
While the film is gorgeous to look at, from the simple March household to some of the grander homes and locations, it is the finely-etched characters brought to life by a strong ensemble cast that ensures the film’s success. The four young actresses bring to life the four sisters in ways where each stands out in her own way and yet also provides able support for the others. Two of them (Ronan and Pugh) may find themselves on Oscar ballots, as will several of the veteran cast members. Streep, of course, is nearly always a delight to watch, but Dern and Cooper deliver performances that, coincidentally, are stark contrasts to their turns in other current films. Dern, playing the moral anchor to the March family, is also the ruthless divorce lawyer in “Marriage Story” while Cooper’s genial presence here is the mirror image of his father who abandoned his family in “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood.”
Perhaps the reason “Little Women” has remained popular as a book and on screen, is that it presents a variety of role models of women making their way in the world in both traditional and non-traditional roles who do so without compromising their own values. Whether it’s the best version or not can be debated by others. What’s certain, though, is that this is simply the latest one and, most assuredly, not the last.
The Boston Society of Film Critics has named this the best film of 2019.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books including Jar Jar Binks Must Die. His latest novel is Father of the Bride of Frankenstein. He is the 2018 recipient of the Skylark Award given by the New England Science Fiction Association. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.