I suppose I must start this review with the not very shocking admission that I loved the novel, Little Women. Well, of course I did, I am an American female, the type who spent her weekends curled up on the one comfortable chair at our Chicago Public library branch. I cried as much as Joey Tribbiani did. Little Women is such a classic that this is the eighth cinematic adaptation of the 1868 Louisa May Alcott novel.
The director this time is Greta Gerwig, hot off of last year’s Ladybird and again working with her Oscar-nominated lead, Saoirse Ronan. Gerwig also adapted the book, and takes a big gamble in mixing things up in the story structure. Does it pay off? Well, it notably didn’t charm the Academy voters into nominating her direction.
Little Women: Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy
We all know the tale of the four March sisters, struggling to grow up with reduced circumstances and with an absent father, in the midst of the American Civil War. They all aspire to different things in their looming adulthood – Jo (Ronan), the protagonist, wants to be a writer, and Meg (Emma Watson), the eldest, to have a happy maternal life like her mother. Gentle Beth (Eliza Scanlen) desires peace and her piano, and spoiled baby Amy (Florence Pugh) wants out of this middle class misery and isn’t afraid to use her golden looks to achieve her goals.
Perhaps sensing this well established story needed a bit of shaking up, Gerwig loses the traditional timeline, incessantly cutting back and forth between the later days that see the four sisters separated by geography and life, and three or four years earlier at home with their Marmee (nicely played by Laura Dern). We jump around in a series of flashbacks and flash-asides, and it becomes increasingly hard to keep engaged.
This is a series of high energy vignettes, patched together with the frenetic nature of a overly-worthy high school production. Look, things are fun, wild and crazy! Wait, life is now somber and sad! While telling their story chronologically might seem too safe in 2020, playing it straight at least lets us ease into the life of the March sisters and make connections.
Four time Oscar nominee Saoirse Ronan leads the way
Saorise Ronan has to carry the weight of Little Women as Jo, and as always she is fantastic. You believe Jo’s strength and passion, she is a natural leader, though Gerwig has her running everywhere just to show how driven and unconventional she is.
The fascinating Florence Pugh has earned her first Oscar recognition as Amy, and if you read our review of Lady Macbeth you’ll know my girlcrush on Florence has been going on for years. I can’t wait to see what she does next. (just looked and she’s joining the Marvel Universe in Black Widow. oh dear.)
The rest of the casting… this is where it falls apart for me. Meryl Streep is fine, not really given much to do, I groaned when even more unnecessary
Saul Goodman Bob Odenkirk walked in the door.
My biggest problem was much more agregious: Timothée Chalamet’s portrayal of hero-next-door Laurie. Laurie is meant to be a rock for the family and capture the hearts of two of the sisters, but not for a minute did he seem adult enough to do so. Jo passes on Laurie’s offer of affection, and for good reason; the characters do not come across as contemporaries, as the actors so wonderfully did in Ladybird. I usually like Chalamet but he is completely wrong for this part.
Jo later finds time for Friedrich, a professor she meets in New York. Stoic and German, Friedrich is quiet and potentially awkward, but for goodness sake you need to cast someone with enough allure to distract our leading lady from her writing. There is no chemistry between French actor Louis Garrel and Saoirse Ronan.
And stop me if this statement is heresy, but while she might be very clever, a good feminist and someone I think I’d like to hang with, I don’t think Emma Watson can act.
Gerwig arguably lends her film more style and girlpower than any of the previous seven adaptations, the latest being a well-received 1994 version directed by Gillian Armstrong and starring Winona Ryder. But, at what cost? Little Women is not a bad film, it just feels like looking through a disorganized photo album of people you barely know. I didn’t even cry when that thing happens – you know, the thing that had Joey and I in tears way back when… I didn’t really feel anything I wanted to feel in this version of Little Women.
It’s back to the book for me.
More PCB Coverage from Martina O’Boyle
A former ABC National, Dallas and Atlanta radio personality, Martina O'Boyle is now making movies and covering culture in London, Dublin, and as far in Europe as the cheapie flights will take her, for Pop Culture Beast.