Editor’s note: The views and opinions expressed in this review are solely those of Marlon Wallace and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of WBOC.
This is the seventh film adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s 1868 novel. Writer-director Greta Gerwig has said in interviews that the novel was one of her all-time favorite books. It’s been a part of her for as long as she can remember, so her making this seventh adaptation isn’t a surprise. One could still argue that her making this film is treading on much-traveled ground. I haven’t seen any of the previous six adaptations, so I can’t comment on that much-traveled ground. For many, the obvious question is what’s so new about Gerwig’s version or what does Gerwig’s version have that the previous versions didn’t? The obvious answer is the ending. The ending to this adaptation is different from all the previous adaptations and new. Gerwig’s ending is more reflective of the current times. It’s more feminist.
Yet, it’s not the only thing that’s different. Gerwig’s structure here is unlike the others. The structure isn’t linear. It jumps back-and-forth in time. The book centers on four sisters. It starts with them as teenagers and follows them into adulthood when they have children of their own. This film follows that general path, but not in a straight line. It skips ahead and then flashes back. Gerwig uses visual cues to inform us of the time-shifts. The lighting and color palette seem to change to reflect the time-shifts. Otherwise, it might not be absolutely clear at first that the time-shifts are even happening. It’s only toward the end that the time-shifts become more pronounced. The time-shifts are only by a few years, so it’s not as if there would be many physical differences to notice. It’s not like the TV series Lost, which used sound cues for its time-shifts. Gerwig rather eases us into the time-shifts subtly and by making them seamless or not noticeable in any pointed way. That is until the very end.
Saoirse Ronan (Lady Bird and Atonement) stars as Josephine March, aka Jo. She’s one of four sisters living in Concord, Massachusetts, during the time of the American Civil War. They live with their mother in a modest home. Their father is away, serving in the war effort. Jo is a writer. She particularly likes writing fiction, short stories and even plays. In fact, she writes plays for her sisters to perform. The film starts when she’s in her 20’s and living in New York City. She resides in a boarding house and spends her time teaching, as well as trying to sell her writing and get anything, including a book published. We follow her from that point. We also go back to see what led up to that point.
Florence Pugh (Midsommar and Fighting With My Family) co-stars as Amy March, the youngest of the four sisters. She certainly behaves as if she’s the youngest. She can be the most bratty and the most childish. She aspires to be an artist, specifically a painter. She’s told that she’s talented and she believes she is, but she wonders if she’s at the genius level.
Emma Watson (Beauty and the Beast and Harry Potter and the Sorceror’s Stone) also co-stars as Margaret March, aka Meg. She’s the eldest sister of the four. She’s probably the most traditional of all them. She’s not like her other sisters who aspire to be artists or independent to some degree. Meg is content to be a wife and mother, and not much more. She does have desires to be a wealthy woman or a woman of status. She heeds the lessons from her elders that push her and her sisters to marry well.
Eliza Scanlen (Sharp Objects and Home and Away) also co-stars as Elizabeth March, aka Beth. She’s the shyest of all the sisters. She’s the third born and perhaps feels like the middle-born. She stands out for her musical ability. She’s an accomplished pianist.
Timothée Chalamet (Lady Bird and Call Me By Your Name) plays Theodore Laurence, aka Laurie. He’s about the same age as Jo and Meg. He’s their next door neighbor, except he’s the grandson of a very wealthy man who lives on a huge estate within view of the March home. When his parents died, Laurie came to live with his grandfather, Mr. Laurence, played by Chris Cooper (Adaptation and American Beauty). Mr. Laurence has arranged for Laurie to be tutored. His tutor is John Brooke, played by James Norton (Flatliners and Belle). When Laurie becomes aware of the sisters, he immediately befriends them and takes to them.
These three men do factor into the development of these women. They all play significant roles. Laurie and John particularly play roles in the love lives of a few of the sisters. In this time period, the options for women were very limited. Their options include either tolling away in menial work, which usually leaves them to waste, or the only other option is marrying well, meaning marrying for money. This is a theme that has been explored, not much in American films but more in international films like the recent Oscar-nominee from France, Mustang (2015). This film explores that theme and forces the girls to face that choice, if they’ll marry and if they do, if it will be strictly for the money.
As a film that has an undercurrent of romance, Gerwig deals with that romance in an interesting way. There’s a love triangle, but Gerwig doesn’t make it ultimately a sweeping sentimental thing. Two of the people decide to marry not because they want to do so but because their first option isn’t available or possible. They do marry out of love but not their first love. When it comes to first loves, particularly for the girls, it’s great that it isn’t just another man. For example, Jo’s first love is writing and this film really develops her passion and affair with the pen-and-paper than any hunky hunk or pretty, pretty boy.
The ending of this film, which differs from all the other versions, goes to that passion for the pen-and-paper. When it comes to films about writers, there’s the cliché of the film ending with the writer writing the story of the film you just saw. This film embraces that same cliché, but Gerwig’s rendition of that is probably the best conception of that cliché that I’ve probably ever seen. The build-up to that ending is Gerwig in her most triumphant and makes this film even more triumphant or powerful than her highly-acclaimed Lady Bird (2017). Gerwig’s rendition, from the camera moves and editing, the cross-cutting, makes it also one of the best endings of the year.
All the performances are perfect. The four girls in particular shine and soar under Gerwig’s stellar direction. Two other actresses to spotlight include Laura Dern (Marriage Story and Star Wars: The Last Jedi) who plays Marmee, the mother to the four sisters. She’s just a warm, lovely and calming presence. The other actress to spotlight is Meryl Streep, one of the most Oscar-nominated actresses who has worked with both Dern and Cooper prior. Streep plays Aunt March, who is very reminiscent of the Dowager from Downton Abbey, as played by Maggie Smith. Streep is a scene-stealer and a good source of comedy in a lovely film that is clearly one of 2019’s best.
Rated PG for theme and brief smoking.
Running Time: 2 hrs. and 15 mins.