Little Women Reviews: What Did Critics Say About Little Women?
“Christmas wouldn’t feel like Christmas without gifts.” This is the first sentence of “Little Women,” and I’m happy to say that in this sad holiday season when so many people deserve Krampus or coal, the new movie version of Louisa May Alcott’s book is an absolute gift.
A whole stocking’s worth. Greta Gerwig wrote and directed this version of “Little Women,” which is the most recent of a long line of movies based on the book. It embraces the book with eager enthusiasm instead of shy reverence.
It stays true enough to the book to please the book’s devoted fans, who will recognize the work of a kindred spirit, but it can also stand on its own as a creative and unique piece of modern pop culture. Gerwig has made a story that feels both completely 19th-century and completely modern. She has done this without resorting to self-conscious anachronism or fussy antiquarianism.
Some of that freshness comes from the cast, which is made up of a lot of talented young people and a few hardy old people. There was also an eagerness for clothes, books, baked goods, and new experiences that easily connects then and now. Saoirse Ronan is at the center of the fuss, just like she was in Gerwig’s “Lady Bird.” She plays Jo March, the second oldest of four sisters who live in Concord, Massachusetts, during and after the Civil War.
The four people are different in personality and skill, which makes it easy to pick and choose who you like and fall in love with. Meg (Emma Watson), the oldest, is a good actress and a responsible person. Beth (Eliza Scanlen), who is younger, is musical and sweet. Amy (Florence Pugh), the youngest sister, and Jo, the middle sister, are both artists, but they often fight with each other.
Before romance, tragedy, and the everyday pains of growing up make things harder, they are a group that can’t be separated, even if they don’t always get along. Jo writes the plays that the rest of them act out in front of their toys, their mother (Laura Dern), and the housekeeper, Hannah (Jayne Houdyshell).
But the sisters mostly live to make each other happy (and sometimes to make each other sad). The sight of their natural, loving, noisy closeness is a joy to behold. We sometimes catch a glimpse of it through the amused eyes of potential suitors, kind neighbors, and Meryl Streep’s role as a very rich, very judgmental aunt. Bob Odenkirk plays the girl’s father, who is kind and not rich.
Gerwig doesn’t start the story where Alcott does, with a harsh Christmas during the war. Instead, she shows us Jo seven years later, when she is an ink-stained writer paying a New York publisher a visit (Tracy Letts). The rest of “Little Women” jumps back and forth between two times in Jo and her family’s lives. Alcott tells the story of their lives in a straight line, but Gerwig uses associations and memories to tell the story.
She is helped by Nick Houy’s skillful editing and Alexandre Desplat’s musically stitched score. It’s as if the book was carefully taken apart and put back together again, with the signatures sewn back together in a way that sparks surprise and sometimes makes you feel dizzy in a good way.
This jumping around in time wakes up the story and gets the viewer to pay attention. Gerwig isn’t afraid to make her audience work a little, like all good novelists and all great filmmakers. She believes in our intelligence and our desire to learn, as well as her own skill with the medium. “Little Women” can be made more like a movie without using tricks or gimmicks. One way to do this is to change the order of the story’s events.
This movie explores the mysteries of time just as much as “The Irishman” or “Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood.” In Gerwig’s hands, the unique magic of the medium—its ability to change the order of events, slow down and speed up time, and put memory before experience—becomes a tool for philosophical and emotional inquiry. We see the March sisters become the people we’ve always known them to be, and we also see them figure out who they are for themselves.
Their coming of age happens at the same time, but in different ways depending on their time, place, class, and gender. The publisher who buys Jo’s shocking stories tells her that women in fiction must either get married or die, and “Little Women” follows that rule, though not quite in the same way as the book.
Romance comes in the form of young Teddy Laurence, played by Timothée Chalamet. He is the slightly wild grandson of a rich widower in Concord (Chris Cooper). Laurie, as the sisters call him, sometimes seems more like a fifth March sister or an untrained puppy than a boyfriend. He can’t even sit in a chair, right?
Meg, who everyone agrees is the most beautiful of the four, falls in love with Laurie’s tutor, James Norton. This means that her marriage vow is also a vow to be poor. Aunt March tells Amy, who is more practical, about how marriage will affect her finances.
Jo might not want to get married at all, even though both Laurie and a certain Professor Bhaer (Louis Garrel) are interested in her. Almost every scene has something to do with the question of freedom, especially the independence of women in a society that is both liberal and ruled by tradition.
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Mrs. March says, “I’ve been angry every day of my life,” and even though “Little Women” is funny, sad, sweet, and warm, it doesn’t downplay or apologize for her anger. It also doesn’t make fun of or dismiss the March family’s dedication to social justice, civic duty, and artistic excellence. Alcott thought that all of these things were important parts of American culture. Gerwig is aware that they are still.
And so is this kind of entertainment: kind, sincere, full of critical intelligence and honest emotion, self-aware without even a hint of cynicism, rooted in the details of life, and easy for everyone to understand. Don’t be fooled by the short name. “Little Women” is a huge deal. Alcott’s last sentence, “I can never wish you more happiness than this,” seems like a good way to end.