Little Women (2019)

355 Little Women

Just as an impressionist painting highlights feeling over seeing, Little Women (2019) invites devotees of the classic to feel into the lives of the March family women rather than see what life was actually like in 1860s America. Those unfamiliar with the novel, however, may find that the myriad of tiny brushstrokes and irregular flashbacks obstruct narrative logic. Remember: we are talking about film, not literature, and a good film must stand on its own merits.

The broad storyline is easier to sketch than the labyrinth of melodramatic sibling rivalries, babble, romances, and posturing for a socially advantageous marriage. Daughter Jo (Saorise Ronan) is a writer and it is through her eyes that we know about sisters Meg (Emma Watson), Amy (Florence Pugh), Beth (Eliza Scanlen), mother Marmee (Laura Dern) and Aunt March (Meryl Streep). Males are in short supply as the able-bodied poor are fighting in the Civil War while the indolent rich and others stay as prey for young women looking for social respectability via a husband of means.

The film’s visual pleasures are far greater than its storytelling prowess. The sets and colour palette are richly evocative of 19th Century paintings, with framing in the classic portraiture styles of the era. There is talent galore: rarely does a single film see such a stellar ensemble. The March women are all charming and perhaps overly-sugared caricatures, having different blends of kindness and feisty assertiveness not usually associated with the gender norms of the time. The individual coming-of-age vignettes are engaging and illustrative of social themes that remain relevant today.

Despite the enjoyable visuals, this film struggles to be a great work because of its uneven direction. Louisa May Alcott fans might revel in the film’s richness, but others may find the acting discontinuous and pace jumpy to the point of feeling fractured. The over-use of flashbacks without contextual signals lose continuity and create confusion over timeframes.  Some scenes are saccharine, like the women’s jaunty visit to a poor neighbour’s house to share Christmas food. Other scenes are emotionally flat: Mr March’s homecoming from the War could easily have been a return from a fishing trip. The social relativities of the time are represented ambiguously, with the March women looking well-to-do in some scenes and poor in others.

Adaptations of classic novels to film are opportunities to re-live reading memories, enrich historical understanding and recognise continuities between past and present. For many, only the first goal will be well met; otherwise Little Women presumes more than it offers.

3 half

Director:  Greta Gerwig

Stars:  Saorise Ronan, Emma Watson, Florence Pugh, Eliza Scanlen, Laura Dern, Meryl Streep