Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (August 3, 2020)
If I wanted to list all the filmed versions of Louisa May Alcott’s classic 1868 novel Little Women, I’d need a computer with a bigger hard drive. To put it mildly, the story long ago became a staple of movies and TV.
Apparently audiences don’t tire of Women, as Greta Gerwig’s 2019 adaptation found success. In addition to strong reviews, the movie made $209 million worldwide, a pretty nice total for a small character drama so often retold over the decades.
I never read the novel, so my only experience with the story came from the 1994 version. I actively disliked that edition, but given all the praise given to the 2019 flick – and my affection for 2017’s Lady Bird, Gerwig’s prior movie – I wanted to give this one a chance.
Whereas the novel and prior filmed versions of Little Women told its tale chronologically, Gerwig’s opts for a less conventional orientation. Here we start in 1868 and meet Jo March (Saoirse Ronan), a 22-year-old who works in New York City.
Jo craves to become a published writer, but she struggles on that front. Before long, she needs to return home to New England due to her 20-year-old sister Beth’s (Eliza Scanlen) serious illness.
In the meantime, 19-year-old sister Amy (Florence Pugh) enjoys time in Paris as the touring partner of her wealthy Aunt March (Meryl Streep). While in France, she runs into Theodore “Laurie” Laurence (Timothee Chalomet), a family friend who previously attempted to woo Jo. Potential romance ensues between these two.
Finally, 23-year-old Meg March (Emma Watson) lives with husband John Brooke (James Norton) and their young twins. John earns a meager living as a tutor, so the family struggles to get by.
As we see circa 1868 issues related to all the above-mentioned domains, the film also veers back to 1861 to depict younger versions of the characters. These scenes act mainly to show how the roles evolved and got to their 1868 selves.
Like I noted, the 2019 Women became the first to use a non-linear structure, and I get Gerwig’s decision to do something different with the material. We’ve seen so many versions of Women - why make another if you’ll just toss out the same old same old?
That said, the non-chronological framework becomes a mixed bag. On the positive side, it offers an interesting contrast, as we actively consider both the young and the slightly less young versions of the characters at the same time. This allows for a form of active reflection that wouldn’t fare as well in a more straightforward narrative.
However, the way Gerwig jumps between eras can cause some confusion at times, as it can become difficult to tell in which realm we sit. Perhaps Gerwig does this intentionally to blur lines, but I think the mild confusion tends to backfire.
If a viewer needs to stop and think about whether the story depicts Civil War America or post-War circumstances, the viewer mentally checks out for a moment. This might not last long, but the distraction creates a loss of connection to the characters, and given how often this occurs in the 2019 Women, problems result.
The use of the same actors to play young and less young versions of the March sisters creates some of the confusion as well, especially because Gerwig doesn’t find good ways to differentiate the two eras. If the older March sisters were adults at the start, the age difference wouldn’t matter much, but given their teenaged status in 1861, seven years brings a lot of changes.
Especially with Amy. 23 during the shoot, Pugh seems fine as older Amy, but the sight – and sound – of deep-voiced Pugh as a 12-year-old becomes laughable.
At least the silliness of Pugh as a character half her age makes the other three seem more appropriate for their younger roles. Only 20 during filing, Scanlen manages the two ages best – she doesn’t really seem 13 in the 1861 scenes, but she comes across as more believable than Pugh.
Ronan and Watson also feel acceptable as their younger selves, perhaps because we have muscle memory of the actors as actual kids. With films like Atonement and the Harry Potter franchise, we enjoy familiarity with these two as youngsters, so mentally we can make that leap easier than if we’d only gotten to know them as adults.
Despite the absurdity of Pugh as a pre-teen, she actually pulls off the best performance of the four sisters. She shows a depth and dramatic feel for the role that makes Amy the most engaging of the clan. Pugh might not be able to pull off a convincing take as a 12-year-old, but she still trns Amy into the best-realized of the bunch.
Scanlen gets the least consequential of the four “leads”, as Beth really exists more as a plot device than anything else – at least in this movie. Perhaps she enjoys better development in the novel and/or other movies, but here she does little more than be The Sickly One, so Scanlen doesn’t need to tax her talents.
That leaves the two most famous of the four young actors, and I’ve complained about Watson’s acting enough that I almost feel bad. However, as long as she continues to give the same performance for every character, I guess I’ll have to offer the same comments.
Put bluntly: Watson can’t act. She can make her eyebrows move a lot, and she can look forlorn, but that’s the extent of her dramatic range. Watson brings the same mopey performance to Meg, and this means her character seems dull and flat.
On the other hand, I think Ronan can act, but she finds herself at risk of devolving into little more than a mix of Acting-Like Traits. Ronan seems to like to play her characters big, and given Jo’s fiery personality, some of that makes sense here.
Nonetheless, Ronan’s flamboyant performance becomes a distraction. She scowls, she frowns, she gesticulates, she flares nostrils – she does pretty much everything other than really act. Ronan overdoes the role so much that she turns into a negative.
That said, I can’t blame Ronan for her attempt to enliven these soggy proceedings. Perhaps Little Women just isn’t for me, and perhaps I’ll never like any version of the story. The 1994 edition seems well-regarded, and I thought it stunk to high heavens.
So perhaps my sense of boredom during my time with the 2019 film falls more on me than the movie itself. Can all those critics and viewers who loved it be wrong?
Maybe not, but that doesn’t change the fact that I felt utterly disengaged from the story on display here. At no point did I feel any real interest in the March family and their tedious endeavors.
I just never figured out why I should care about Jo and the rest. The movie doesn’t convey any strong reason that I should see them as compelling and/or sympathetic characters.
Okay, that’s not wholly true. Our brief moments with Beth leave the impression that she’s a lovely young lady, and the girls’ mother Marmee (Laura Dern) also seems noble and likable.
But the rest? Jo comes across as arrogant and obnoxious, while Meg feels mopey and dull and Amy seems like a gold-digger. They’re not wholly unsympathetic roles, but I just couldn’t develop an attachment to any of them.
Since we spend 135 minutes with the March clan, this becomes a bad thing. I got bored with Little Women early in the story and that never changed.