By John H. Foote
Is it generational that Little Women seems to pop up as a new film version with such frequency? Whatever the reason, the topical issues explored in the fine book by Louisa May Alcott remain as timely today as they were back in the 1860s and in this film are given an urgency that is alarming.
Greta Gerwig’s fine new film, one of the years best movies, explores the themes within the book that are timeless; independence, creativity, feminism, and being an individual, all of equal importance today, if not more so given the #MeToo movement. Gerwig, one of just five women to be nominated for an Academy Award as Best Director (for her film Lady Bird) was exactly the right director for the film, taking over when Sarah Polley fell away from the project. I must confess I would have loved to have seen what Polley would have brought to the film with her gentle genius, but Gerwig stepped on, rewrote the screenplay into a broken narrative so time is bent and we move back and forth through the lives of the March sisters. Dubbed “little women” by their father, who is away most of their childhood fighting the Civil War, the four girls are radically different, each wanting different things in their lives, each possessing the resolve to go after them.
Jo (Saoirse Ronan) longs to be a writer and takes in everything around her, language, sights, everything that touches her senses. She wishes to be independent, to not need a man, to make her own way in a world governed and run by men. Remember, women did not even have the right to vote at this point in history. Writing was a man’s game, but her publisher is taken with her work and urges her to write what she knows.
Amy (Florence Pugh) fancies herself an artist, but evolves into the hurtful realization she possesses the talent but lacks the genius to make her renowned. Volatile, hot-tempered, in youth she often clashes with her mother and sisters but recognizes her flaws in character as she becomes an adult.
Meg (Emma Watson) wants a family, she wishes to be a wife and mother, and gets what she wants, though she is stuck in poverty, unable to afford things she would like to provide for her family. Still, her capacity for love is enormous, and she fills her life with her family, though broke, forever loving and loved.
Doomed Beth (Eliza Scanlen) spends most of her time playing the piano, a born musician but never truly healthy. Doted on by her mother, Marmee (Laura Dern) quietly seething inside but luminously portrayed, Beth is the youngest child, the assumed favourite of the parents, and incidentally the sisters.
Their lives are explored in flashback, which beautifully explores their evolution from girls into little women, overcoming extraordinary obstacles, often set by themselves. The story is so well known and often filmed I would feel foolish giving even the briefest of synopsis outlines, what I have said should suffice.
Greta Gerwig is among just five women to have been nominated for the Academy Award as Best Director for her exquisite coming of age story Lady Bird (2017) which featured several of the stars of this film, specifically Ronan, who has become her muse. Gerwig was also nominated for her original screenplay to Lady Bird, and it appears she will earn a nomination for her superb adaptation of this new film. The Best Director category is rather log jammed this year, and frankly, there are several directorial achievements superior to this, but make no mistake, she is well-liked in Hollywood, her gifts are greatly admired, and she could slip in as a nominee. If she does it will not be without merit, and she would become the only woman nominated for Best Director twice, though Kathryn Bigelow was deserving for Zero Dark Thirty (2012) but was snubbed. In fairness, there are many great films this year directed by men, and if Gerwig is ignored, it cannot, it must not be considered a snub. I doubt she would want to be included just to be the token woman in the category, which would be a travesty.
Saoirse Ronan is again a revelation in this role, shifting gears from modern (Lady Bird) to period, which she has done and conquered since being a teenager in Atonement (2007). Remarkable in the failure The Lovely Bones (2010) she has quietly become the actress of this generation in Brooklyn (2015) and Lady Bird (2017), a chameleon slipping in and out of character, altering who she is with each role. Her eyes give away an intelligence, the same that Meryl Streep has had for her entire career, a woman not to ever take lightly. She is the finest Jo put onscreen in the history of the cinema and the many adaptations of this book, for film or television, this is the definitive Jo. Should she be nominated for Best Actress, she would be a most worthy nominee though the field is rather packed.
Florence Pugh, fast on the rise after Midsommar (2019), is equally great as Amy, who slowly and sadly realizes her limitations as an artist and the awful fact she will never be great, merely good. Such a thing is very difficult to accept, and she rails against it with bitter anger, but finds something surprising in Paris, something she never expected and did not see coming. But even this she fights against, having been second to Jo all her life, she does not wish to be second choice in love either to her sister. How fortunate for her, she evolves as a person, as a human being and embraces the goodness that comes to her.
Emma Watson has always been an old soul on screen, far older and wiser than her youth implies. Her Meg is happy in marriage and as a mother, though she struggles, admitting that she gets tired of being poor. There is one scene where the impact of her poverty hits her, as she holds a beautiful piece of fabric that she simply cannot afford, and great sadness crosses her face, but never regret. She accepts her place, her choices, and like Amy, comes to embrace them.
Streep as always is brilliant in a small role as the rich, cranky but wise Aunt, who promises a trip to one girl but takes another. She lends the film some class, but with the other performances, I am not sure they really needed her in the role.
When did Laura Dern become such a force in the acting community? An Emmy win for Big Little Lies, she surpassed that performance in the sequel, the only actress to do so, an acclaimed performance in Marriage Story that will likely land her a Best Supporting Actress nomination, and this, as Marmee, which also could place her among the years Best Supporting Actresses. Quite a year!! Quietly seething, she is spectacular as the nurturing mother who wants so much for her little women but knows the world is often against girls.
And finally, Timothee Chalamet as lovesick Laurie, terrific, as he always is.
Ladies will love it, guys, wake up, see this for your mothers, your wives, and your daughters. Not to be missed. The best adaptation on screen of a classic, as urgent and timely as ever.
One of Canada’s best-known film critics, he spent 10 years on TV as co-host of Reel to Real, and another 10 in education (still writing as a critic) as Director of the Toronto Film School, where he created the curriculum for three programs and taught film history. Film has always been his passion. He has written for magazines such as Toronto Life, Fashion and Hollywood North, been quoted in the Los Angeles and New York Times, as well as the major Toronto dailies. Online he has written for such sites as The Wrap, In Contention, Awards Circuit and The Cinemaholic. His first book Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker, was published in 2010. His second Steven Spielberg: American Film Visionary, a massive volume, has just found a publisher and he’s working on American Film Renaissance – 1967-2018 with Nick Maylor. As a critic, he has had the good fortune to interview directors and stars such as Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Clint Eastwood, Meryl Streep, Tom Hanks, Tom Cruise, Robert Duvall, Emma Stone, Jane Fonda, and countless others. As he quips, “Everyone but Jack Nicholson!”