I feel like a failure of an English major to admit that I have never read Little Women. I have also never seen any of the previous adaptations of it. I knew generally that it was about the young lives of four sisters, but that was about it. I do know something of the changes this adaptation made to the story, but not enough for me to be judging it based on that. Little Women is simply an excellent movie.
The movie starts with the March sisters grown. Jo is in New York, writing. Meg is married with a pair of children. Amy is Paris, learning art and acting as a companion to her elderly aunt. And Beth is still at home, slowly dying from a wasting disease. The movie then proceeds along two paths; one in the past as the March women grow up, and one in the present of the movie as their lives develop as adults. This is not the format of the book, which follows the story in linear fashion. This change serves to highlight the themes that director Greta Gerwig focuses on.
A major concern are the choices and compromises women have to make to simply live their lives. The Marches deal with this differently. Jo fights against the strictures placed upon her, determined to forge her own path. Meg, meanwhile, takes a more traditional route, opting for a largely traditional life as a wife and mother. Amy, meanwhile, finds a middle path. It makes her seem somewhat mercenary, but she learns that marriage is primarily a business transaction. All three of them find happiness, they simply take different paths to get there.
The movie uses the new structure to set up a lot of interesting juxtapositions, both with time and with the fact that Jo is a writer and Gerwig goes out of her way to conflate Jo March with Louisa May Alcott. It works.
This would all make for a fine movie, but the craft on display turns into an amazing one. I don’t know how else to describe the cast except for phenomenal. Starting with the supporting players, Little Women packs some names, all of whom do some good work. Meryl Streep, Chris Cooper, and Laura Dern all show up and are amazing. Even Bob Odenkirk, whose energy is not quite on the same plane as the rest of the cast, is a good actor doing good work. Then there are the stars. The low person on the totem pole is Emma Watson, a movie star in her own right who has headlined blockbusters. But her role does not quite let her shine like what turns out to be the central trio. Florence Pugh had a hell of a 2019, and Amy might be her best performance, even if you never quite buy her as a bratty 12 year old. Saorise Ronan has quickly staked a claim as one of the best actresses working today, and she simply further cements that here. Finally, Timothy Chalamet continues to be impressive. It is just great all around.
The look of the movie is also excellent. It is largely confined to a couple of locations, primarily the March home, but those sets look real and lived in. The movie is wonderfully shot; it simply looks amazing.
Again, I don’t know the book. But Little Women is an excellent adaptation because whatever the book is, it turns it into a genuinely excellent and engrossing movie.