“Little Women” Makes A Big Splash: A High Five Movie Review

by Matthew Escosia
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By: AC Recio

Little Women is a coming-of-age period film about the life and struggles of the March sisters in 19th Century Massachusetts. It is based on a novel of the same name by Louisa May Alcott that, as of 2019, has had 6 movie adaptations.

Past versions (1933 and 1994) of the film were considered huge successes by critical and box office standards, with the 1949 version also garnering praise but not as well received as the other two, and the 1917 and 1918 silent film versions being lost to time. Based on this alone, you can get the sense of what type of fictional work Little Women is – a timeless classic that still has a lot to say more than a hundred years after its initial publication, having been continually reclaimed by multiple generations of filmmakers adding their own sensibilities to the story.

The latest in this list of adaptations is Greta Gerwig’s 2019 version. Making waves during this year’s award season, the film has won 40 awards overall including 6 Oscar nominations and being recognized by the American Film Institute as one of the Top 10 Films of the Year. In this article, we’ll take a dive into the world of Little Women and see how it captured the hearts of critics and audiences alike.

Emma Watson, Saoirse Ronan, Florence Pugh and Eliza Scanlen in Columbia Pictures’ LITTLE WOMEN

Source Material

Even among the multiple adaptations it has already received, the most recent adaptation of the novel stands out, due in part to how much it captures the spirit of the source material while adding its own modern twist. The main difference between the novel and the 2019 film is how it’s told – while the novel follows the March sisters from their young womanhood to adulthood in traditional fashion, the film follows a non-linear narrative using Jo (the main protagonist) as a framing device, inserting scenes from her past in-between her present struggles as a writer. The different scenes are juxtaposed well, with past scenes having an almost sepia tinge which added a melancholy dreamy feeling to her childhood, and present scenes having blue tones which added a modern touch and brought her adulthood down to earth, making the shift between scenes and the transition from idyllic childhood to the reality of adulthood that much more noticeable. Scenes from the different time periods frequently parallel each other and make callbacks to things that happened previously, which ties the film cohesively and strengthens the themes

Greta Gerwig, the film’s writer-director, also pulled directly from Alcott’s journals, letters and life story, adding bits and pieces of it to the movie to add moments of authentic levity and weight that pull it closer to real life. The filmmakers also take liberty in modernizing the sensibilities of the film, making it more relevant to the struggle of modern-day women. An example of this is a scene where Amy, one of Jo’s sisters, gives a speech about how women weren’t allowed to do anything in society, and that the only hope for women in their current situation is to marry someone wealthy. The sisters, each in their own way, fight for what they think women should be able to do in a society

little women high five movie review

Meg March (Emma Watson) and Jo March (Saoirse Ronan) in Columbia Pictures’ LITTLE WOMEN.

Set Design

One of the areas where the movie excelled at is transporting us to the 19th century with the Marches themselves. Extravagant parties, barroom dances, cozy Victorian homes, and empty looming mansions all felt like real environments with real people living in them, of course due to the excellent production and costume design.

Oscar-nominated production designer Jess Gonchor made great use of props and set design to make each location distinct. An example of this are two of the main locations in the film – the March house and the Laurence mansion across it. The March house is a cozy home filled with the laughter of the March sisters, and so it was designed with that in mind – bright and lively interiors which, while seeming small, also emphasizes any movement made within its walls. The youngest March sisters, Amy and Beth, share a room to themselves, with toys scattered around and Amy’s artwork adorning the walls plastered with childlike colorful wallpaper, while the older Amy and Jo have a more formal-looking room with less toys and a writing table, all perfectly adorned with era-appropriate furniture. There is also a connecting closet is shared between the bedrooms to emphasize the strong bond between the sisters. On the other hand, the Laurence mansion is big and looming, with large spaces and sparse decorations, rarely having any centerpieces in them. An example of this is the study, which has high ceilings and bookcases lining the walls, but only has a lonesome piano in the middle. This shows the hollowness and loneliness of the Laurence family, as the house is only occupied by two people – the elderly James Laurence and his grandson, Theodore “Laurie” Laurence, who he was not in good terms with.

 

Costume Design

Jacqueline Durran, who is no stranger to working on period pieces, designed the costumes for the movie, striking a natural balance between classic Victorian clothing and modern sensibilities which earned her an Oscar win this year. Her design choices, some with even the subtlest of touches, brought out the personalities of each of the characters, especially the March sisters. Each of the sisters were visually distinct, style-wise and color-wise – Meg was the oldest of the sisters and valued domesticity, which was why she wore green pieces to symbolize her longing for safety and growth for a happy and stable family, dressing romantically to further show her aspirations; Jo’s clothes had shades of red reflecting her fighting spirit and her clothing was tomboyish to emphasize her nonconformist values; Amy is an artist, and as such is the most stylish among the sisters, mostly wearing light blue pieces that symbolize her loyalty to her sisters and the unconventional wisdom that she has; and Beth, the youngest, doesn’t care for what she wears and usually stays at home – she is symbolizes the heart of the family, binding them together and always bringing them back home, which is why she wears pinkish hues to emphasize her warmth and brightness.

little women high five movie review

Saoirse Ronan and Timothée Chalamet in Columbia Pictures’ LITTLE WOMEN.

Acting, Direction and Writing

The movie was of course held together by stellar performances from the whole cast. Particular standouts are Saoirse Ronan and Florence Pugh as Jo and Amy respectively – both were nominated for an Oscar for their performances in the movie. Ronan and Pugh brought life to the characters and performed with such conviction in their beliefs and aspirations that you would not hesitate to root for both of them. Amazing performances by supporting actors Timothee Chalamet (Laurie, the girls’ neighbor and close friend), Laura Dern (Mary March, the mother) and Meryl Streep (Josephine March, the rich aunt) also rounded out the cast, adding to a fuller experience.

Greta Gerwig excelled as both writer and director for the movie, commanding the flow of the scenes and making sure that each line, emotion and movement from the cast is delivered believably, realistically, and with the maximum impact. Examples that come to mind are the scene of Jo and Laurie dancing by themselves outside a party, Amy following Jo and Laurie on the frozen lake to ask for forgiveness, Laurie’s visit to Amy in Europe, and so much more. The screenplay was well adapted and subversive, covering the highs and lows of the March sisters’ lives and expertly intertwining and adding parallels to the past and present parts of the narrative.

 

Theme

Little Women is a story about sisterhood, womanhood, art and money. The Marches, more explicitly Jo and Amy, struggle with their domestic duty and personal growth – Jo dreams to be a professional writer who writes “serious” stories, but is held back by her responsibility to provide for her family and the fact that melodramatic stories sell more; and Amy aspires to become a painter, but is brought down to earth by the realization that she’s not as good as she wants to be and that she might end up marrying someone wealthy in the end. One scene highlights their mother Mary, who says that even in her everyday role as caretaker to her children, she has so much pain and anger that she is internalizing but has no way of release.

The film shows the struggles of women at the time: how they’re not expected to do anything but to get married, birth children and raise them, how they’re seen as inferior by society at large. These struggles are universal and still ring true in some cases these days – women are still devalued and viewed as objects, which shows just how dated this perspective actually is, being that the novel which first put these things under a spotlight is over a hundred years old. The film does not shy away from explicitly stating these problems and sharing with its audience the frustrations of the women who face them.

Where the film truly shines is in its portrayal of sisterhood. The complex and intimate relationship between the March sisters transcend time and space. They might not have always been sympathetic with each other, sometimes even downright antagonistic, but the sisters’ actions always came from a place love. From sibling rivalries, to genuine nurture and support, to understanding and looking out for one another even if they’re not together – the amount of trust between them shows the strong bond of sisterhood and the ways it can bring out the best in everyone.

little women high five movie review

Photo courtesy of Columbia Pictures.

The Verdict

Little Women is a film teeming with movement, color and energy. The film captures the spirit of its source material, the chaotic joy of sisterhood and the tragedy and beauty of life, while giving the classic story its own unique spin. With stellar acting and amazing production and costume design, the movie reels you in and never lets go until the credits stop rolling. Because of this, Little Women receives 4 out of 5 waves.

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