"LITTLE WOMEN" (2019) Review
Ever since its release in movie theaters back in December 2019, many moviegoers have been in rapture over "LITTLE WOMEN", filmmaker Greta Gerwig’s adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s 1868 novel. The movie did acquire several acclaims, including Oscar nominations for two of the film’s actresses, Best Adapted Screenplay and an actual Oscar for costume design. I never got the chance to see it in theaters. I finally managed to see it on the HULU streaming service.
Anyone familiar with Alcott’s novel knows that it conveyed the tale of four sisters from a Massachusetts family and their development from adolescence and childhood to adulthood during the 1860s. The first half of Alcott’s tale covered the March sisters’ experiences during the U.S. Civil War. In fact, Alcott had based the March family on herself and her three sisters. Unlike previous adaptations, Gerwig incorporated a nonlinear timeline for this version of "LITTLE WOMEN".
There were aspects of "LITTLE WOMEN" I truly admired. I did enjoy most of the performances. Or some of them. I thought Saoirse Ronan gave an excellent performance as the movie’s leading character Josephine "Jo" March. I thought she did a pretty good job of recapturing Jo’s extroverted personality and artistic ambitions. I do wish that Gerwig had allowed Jo to convey some of the less pleasant sides to her personality. Do I believe she deserved her Oscar nomination? Perhaps. Perhaps not. Although I thought she gave an excellent performance, I do not know if I would have considered her for an acting nomination.
But I was more than impressed by Eliza Scanlen, who portrayed third sister Elizabeth "Beth" March. Although her story more or less played out in a series of vignettes that switched back and forth between the period in which she first caught the scarlet fever and her death a few years later; Scanlen did a superb job in recapturing the pathos and barely submerged emotions of Beth’s fate. It seemed a pity that she had failed to acquire any acting nominations. One last performance that really impressed me came from Meryl Streep. I have always regarded the temperamental Aunt March as a difficult role for any actress. And although I do not regard Streep’s interpretation of the aging matriarch as the best I have seen, I must admit that for me, she gave one of the best performances in the film. The movie also featured solid performances from the likes of Emma Watson, Laura Dern, Chris Cooper, Tracy Letts, James Norton, Louis Garrel, Bob Odenkirk and Florence Pugh, who also received an Oscar nomination for her performance as the youngest March sister, Amy. About the latter . . . I really admired her portrayal of the older Amy March. But I found her performance as the younger Amy rather exaggerated. And a part of me cannot help but wonder why she had received an Oscar nomination in the first place.
Jacqueline Durran won the film's only Academy Award – namely for Best Costume Design. Did she deserve it? I honestly do not believe she did. I did enjoy some of her designs, especially for the older Amy March, as shown below:
I found the costumes worn by Pugh, Streep and many extras in the Paris sequences very attractive and an elegant expression of fashion from the late 1860s. Otherwise, I found Durran’s costumes for this film rather questionable. I realize both she and Gerwig were attempting to portray the March family as some kind of 19th century version of "hippies". But even non-traditional types like the Marches would not wear their clothing in such a slap-dash manner with petticoat hems hanging below the skirts, along with bloomers showing, cuts and styles in clothing that almost seemed anachronistic, and wearing no corsets. The latter would be the equivalent of not wearing bras underneath one’s clothing in the 20th and 21st centuries. Someone had pointed out that many of today’s costume designers try to put a "modern twist" to their work in period dramas in order to appeal to modern moviegoers and television viewers. I really wish they would not. The attempt tends to come off as lazy costuming in my eyes. And this tactic usually draws a good deal of criticism from fans of period dramas. So . . . how on earth did Durran win an Oscar for her work in the first place?
I understand that "LITTLE WOMEN" was filmed in various locations around Massachusetts, including Boston and Cambridge. A part of me felt a sense of satisfaction by this news, considering the story’s setting of Concord, Massachusetts. I was surprised to learn that even the Paris sequences were filmed in Ipswich, Massachusetts. However, I must admit that I was not particularly blown away by Yorick Le Saux's cinematography. Then again, I can say that for just about every adaptation of Alcott’s novel I have ever seen.
There were scenes from "LITTLE WOMEN" that I found memorable. Those include Jo March’s initial meeting with her publisher Mr. Dashwood; Amy March’s conflict with Theodore "Laurie" Laurence over his behavior in Paris; Jo’s rejection of Laurie’s marriage proposal, and especially the montage featuring Beth March’s bout with scarlet fever and its consequences. However . . . I had some problems with Gerwig’s screenplay.
As I have stated earlier, "LITTLE WOMEN" is not the first movie I have seen that utilized the non-linear plot technique. I have seen at least two adaptations of Charlotte Brontë’s 1847 novel, "Jane Eyre". Two more famous examples of this plot device were the 1995 film, "12 MONKEYS" and two of Christopher Nolan’s movies – 2000’s "MEMENTO" and 2017’s "DUNKIRK". How can I put this? I feel that Greta Gerwig’s use of non-linear writing had failed the film’s narrative. It simply did not work for me. Except for the brilliant montage featuring Beth’s fate, it seemed as if Gerwig’s writing had scattered all over the place without any real semblance of following Alcott’s plot. If I had not been already familiar with Alcott’s story, I would have found “LITTLE WOMEN” totally confusing.
I also feel that because of Gerwig’s use of the non-linear technique, she managed to inflict a little damage on Alcott’s plot. Despite the excellent scene featuring Laurie’s marriage proposal, I felt that Gerwig had robbed the development of his relationship with Jo. I also believe that Gerwig had diminished Jo’s relationship with Professor Bhaer. In the film, Bhaer had expressed harsh criticism of Jo’s earlier writing . . . without explaining his opinion. But he never added that Jo had the potential to write better stories than her usual melodrama crap. Why did Gerwig deleted this aspect of Professor Bhaer’s criticism? In order to make him look bad? To set up the idea of Jo ending the story as a single woman, because that was Alcott’s original intent? Did Gerwig consider the original version of this scene a detriment to feminist empowerment? I am also confused as to why Gerwig allowed the March family to push her into considering Professor Bhaer as a potential mate for Jo? This never happened in the novel. Jo had come to her decision to marry the professor on her own perogative. She did not have to be pushed into this decision. Come to think of it, exactly how did Jo’s fate end in the movie? I am confused. Did she marry Bhaer after rushing to the train station in order to stop him from leaving for California? Or did she remain single? Whatever.
And why on earth did she position Amy and Laurie’s first meeting after the former’s hand had been caned by her school teacher? Gerwig had transformed an incident that had taught Amy a lesson about self-respect and generated the Marches’ righteous anger against a schoolteacher’s abuse to one of comic relief and a cute rom.com meet for Amy and Laurie. What the hell? Someone had once complained that Gerwig may have assumed that everyone was familiar with Alcott’s story when she wrote this screenplay. And I agree with that person. Earlier I had questioned the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ decision to award the Best Costume Design statuette to Jacqueline Durran and nominate Florence Pugh for Best Supporting Actress. But I also have to question the organization’s decision to nominate Gerwig’s writing for Best Adapted Screenplay. I honestly believe she did not deserve it.
There were aspects of "LITTLE WOMEN" that I found admirable. I was certainly impressed by some of the film’s dramatic moments. And there were a handful of performances from the likes of Saoirse Ronan, Eliza Scanlen and Meryl Streep that truly impressed me. But I cannot deny that the other members of the cast gave either first-rate or solid performances. In the end, I did not like the movie.
I believe "LITTLE WOMEN" should have never been nominated for Best Picture. Greta Gerwig’s use of the nonlinear technique did not serve Louisa May Alcott’s plot very well. If I had not been familiar with the novel’s plot, I would have found this movie confusing. Aside from Ronan’s Academy Award nomination for Best Actress, I feel that the other nominations and Best Costume Design win were undeserved. And a part of me feels a sense of relief that Gerwig had never received a nomination for Best Director.