Review: Little Women

Greta Gerwig made a bold decision to tackle for her second directorial effort not only one of the most beloved classic novels of the 19th century, but one that has been adapted as a movie about a dozen times already. And it’s not as if these adaptations needed improving upon. The idea was that each generation of girls needed their own film version with contemporary actors for identification purposes, and in that regard Gerwig hits her marks admirably, but there’s something else happening in this version that never happened before, something that’s both bracingly fresh and slightly irreverent.

It’s not so much that Gerwig tells Louisa May Alcott’s story out of chronological order, a decision that immediately feels unsettling but in the end reveals more about our hero, Jo (Saoirse Ronan), and her ambition to be a writer. Jo, of course, is Alcott herself, and Gerwig seems to want to give the author more credit for her creation than she wanted to give herself. Right away, we get the measure of Jo’s rebellious nature when she rejects the criticism of a male editor who tells her that women’s stories have to be about a certain thing (love) and told a certain way (leading to a happy ending), and while this episode is from the book, by placing it near the beginning we understand what Jo will be striving for. It’s a little on the nose, but it prepares the audience for the drama to unfold. For the most part the plot is a series of anecdotes tied to Jo’s memories of how she became the woman she is, mainly through her relationship with her three sisters, her patient mother (Laura Dern), her patrician aunt (Meryl Streep), and the beloved father (Bob Odenkirk) who is mostly missing from the scene owing to the war.

And then there is, of course, Laurie (Timothee Chalamet), the childhood friend and confidante who has always nursed a deep crush for Jo, though ostensibly he is destined to marry younger sister Amy (Florence Pugh), who is more directly enamored of Laurie’s pedigree and future income. Laurie is the instrument with which Alcott tests Jo’s resolve to be an artist, and what gives Gerwig’s interpretation its bite is the way Jo wrestles with her feelings in such a violent way. Ronan is especially affecting in the way Jo occasionally abandons logic and practicality while understanding that it is those two values that will make her an artist rather than a woman pursuing a woman’s destiny (i.e., marriage and motherhood). In past versions, Jo was steadfast if slightly miserable. In Gerwig’s telling, Jo is a mess of contradictory impulses, and it becomes clear that it is this mixture that informs her artistic ideals.

Consequently, the episodes that make the story indelible — Beth’s (Eliza Scanlen) catastropic illness, the fraught engagement of eldest sister Meg (Emma Watson), the emotional return of the father at a most opportune moment — have a richness of purpose that in past versions seemed more like concessions to dramatic exigency. There is only one theme worth pondering in Little Women: Jo’s growth as an artist, and Gerwig, herself turning into a master filmmaker in front of our eyes, contrives every element of the movie toward the illumination of that theme. Alcott’s story has finally become both timeless and timely.

Now playing in Tokyo at Toho Cinemas Nihonbashi (050-6868-5060), Toho Cinemas Hibiya (050-6868-5068), Shinjuku Wald 9 (03-5369-4955), Shinjuku Piccadilly (050-6861-3011), Toho Cinemas Shinjuku (050-6868-5063), Toho Cinemas Shibuya (050-6868-5002), Toho Cinemas Roppongi Hills (050-6868-5024).

Little Women home page in Japanese.

photo (c) Sony Pictures Entertainment

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