Oscar Season Made Me Do This: A Review of 2019's Little Women
Updated: Sep 22, 2020
I know, I know. I’m a month late to the Little Women party, but a few of my friends just saw the film over the weekend. And of course, I have thoughts.
Now, before I get to the review, you should probably know that I’ve never actually read Little Women. I’ve read an abridged version of the novel when I was younger, I’ve seen a few adaptations of the book, and I have been cast in the stage version of it as well. By cast I mean I was part of the ensemble and I got to walk across stage three time throughout the entirety of an almost three-hour show. During one of those crosses I did get to sing; I got to sing like three bars of Latin as a monk; good times. I did end up with one of the prettiest dresses in the entire show though.
Anyway, I’m basically trying to say that I’m not a Little Women purist or anything like that. I’m just here to tell ya what I think of this movie.
As always, we’ll start with the characters. As you all should know, Little Women follows the March sisters: Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy. It follows these women as they live their teenage and young adult years during the Civil War and early postbellum years, whilst navigating love, family, death, and independence.
Jo has always been my favorite March sister for obvious reasons. Like her, I grew up wishing to be remembered for something great. While she wanted to be a great writer, I wanted to be a great actress. Now, much like Jo, I’m trying to write for a living. Jo March was definitely my inspiration in high school.
Sadly, I didn’t care much for Saoirse Ronan’s Jo. To me, Jo is this feminist icon who is fiery, independent, strong-willed, headstrong, and rebellious. While I can see those traits in Ronan’s performance, I felt that her Jo was whiny.
I have nothing against the changes that Greta Gerwig made to the story or to Jo’s character; this is not my issue with this Jo. I appreciate the additional speech Jo has near the end of the film where she tells Marmee that she feels so alone, and even the letter she almost sends to Laurie saying she would marry him. I feel that these changes do add to Jo’s character because Jo can easily become a “perfect” character without any emotions, but these changes give her a chance to show a different side of herself.
It was moments earlier in the film that made me view Jo as whiny. For example, during the party where Meg and Jo meet Laurie for the first time, Jo’s dress is scorched so she doesn’t dance in public. This scene has always bothered me because I’ve never felt that Jo would be someone who would shammed by this issue, but I digress. Nonetheless, in this film version Jo actually seems upset by her dress not being the best; as if it is going to hinder her in finding a suitor or offending society. This isn’t the Jo I know and love! Who cares about your dress! Instead of it just be an excuse not to dance, it actually is a problem to this version of Jo.
I think Saoirse Ronan is a great actress, and there are many films of hers that I thoroughly enjoy, but there was just something off about her Jo.
Surprisingly, Amy, portrayed by Florence Pugh, was my favorite March sister in this adaptation. Amy is normally the vain, bratty young sister; who is the absolute worst because she burned Jo’s book. Like, I still absolutely hate Amy for doing that, but Pugh’s performance shows the character grow as a person, and shows how grounded Amy can be. She’s confident, charismatic, witty, bold, intelligent, and knows what she wants in life. Honestly, what’s not to love about her.
Florence Pugh best win Best Supporting Actress at the Oscars or I’m going to riot.
Now, I’m very conflicted when it comes to Meg March. I absolutely adore Emma Watson. She is such a phenomenal person and actress. Needless to say, I was super excited to see her in the film.
That being said, I’m not sure about my thoughts on her part. I’m just very conflicted when it comes to Meg. She is far from my favorite character, yet Watson is definitely on my favorite actress list. I’m honestly not sure if I cared for Meg because Watson was portraying her OR because the performance was that good.
I don’t think Watson did anything new with the character she was portraying. I don’t think the film gave her enough time to really do anything new. Personally, Meg always was the sister who was just there. She was special because she the eldest sister, and that’s pretty much how the character has always been treated in adaptations.
You see why I’m conflicted.
Finally, out of the four March sisters, there is Beth March portrayed in the film by Eliza Scanien. Despite desperately wanting to play Beth March in middle school, she is now my least favorite March sister. Much like Meg, she’s kinda just there to me. She’s the main emotional backbone of the story, and she has her merits, but she’s not my favorite.
I do think Scanien was absolutely wonderful in the role. I don’t think that there was anything new she added to the role, but I definitely felt for the character. I cried when she died, I felt proud when she played the piano, and loved every bit of her relationship with Mr. Lawrence; honestly, the relationship between these two has always been my favorite relationship in this story.
Now that I’ve finished talking about the March sisters, I’m just going to talk about Laurie and Aunt March because they are the only other characters I have thoughts on. Everyone else in the cast did adequately, and I have no qualms with any of the performances, but none of them jumped out at me either.
So let’s talk about fashion icon Timothee Chalamet. He perfectly captured the foppish nature that Laurie has yet no one talks about. He’s charming, witty, and captures the man-child I look for in Laurie. Laurie is such a worthless character; he’s so used to getting everything his way until he meets Jo, and he just creates issues for the March sisters. Yet Timothee Chalamet made me adore this man.
The chemistry between Chalamet, Pugh, and Ronan is absolutely insane. Every moment Chalamet is paired with one of these women there is such intense passion and tension on screen. I believe every moment that they are having fun and every moment they are fighting or crying. I would gladly have watched an adaptation of Little Women with just these three characters and the drama between them. Seriously, screw the other two March sisters, they don’t matter anymore.
You know who still matters though? Aunt March. She is an icon. And she is also played by an icon. Who is able to play a mother who lives in Greece, doesn’t know who the baby daddy is, and sings her feelings exclusively through ABBA music?
Who can strike fear into the hearts and souls of her co-workers at fake Vogue?
Who could even attempt to play an actress whose career is on decline who then proceeds to take a magic potion, dies, and then comes back as a walking, talking, decaying corpse?
Meryl freaking Streep, that’s who.
Is there a better actress to play the legend of Aunt March? No, absolutely not.
Listen, this I’m sure in an unpopular opinion, but I think Aunt March is the best minor character in Little Women. And that’s because I too am a grouchy old woman who enjoys living in luxury with tiny dogs. Not gonna lie, the life Aunt March has is absolutely my goal in life. Except I’m totally going to be nice to retail and food employees, because we know that Aunt March isn’t kind to them.
Honestly, the only way for me to hate Aunt March is for the actress portraying her to not keep the humor in the character. She is the comedic relief in the story. In some ways, Aunt March is a satirical embodiment of Victorian ideals.
She’s fixated on the sisters’ lives; viewing their lives as nothing more than who they shall marry. She is disgusted in Jo’s want to be financially independent. She is annoyed by Meg’s marriage to a poor scholar. She basically ignores Beth as she is very aware Beth would have likely become a spinster or a nun should Beth have lived. She makes it a point to state to Amy that all the family’s future comforts rely on Amy marrying rich.
Yes, those portraying Aunt March can play the character without that humor, but it hinders the character when that happens. The character can also be hindered if the actress in the role plays it straight for laughs. The actress playing Aunt March needs to convince the audience that this woman is strong in her beliefs, but that they know it is okay to laugh at the character as well. Meryl Streep expertly balances the humor of the character without sacrificing Aunt March’s beliefs. I fully believe that this woman existed during the 1860’s, and she was brought to the present day in a time machine solely to be a part of this film.
Now that I’m done talking about the characters and performances, I guess I should talk about the cinematography, the costuming, settings, and whatnot. This is technically a movie review after all.
Firstly, was I the only bothered by the fact that the March house was solid black on the outside? Like, that didn’t make sense to me; it was an odd choice. I’ve always envisioned a whitewashed house that looked plain but homey. Not what I would have decided upon. The Lawrence house looks like I envisioned it, from what we see of Aunt March’s home seems correct, but the March home is an odd choice. Let me know if I’m totally wrong though, and this house is a perfect representation of what is described in the book.
Costuming though was spot on. I love me some Victorian era gowns; which we definitely got in this movie. But there was that very distinct split between the upper and lower classes that I enjoyed even more.
The divide is most notable between Amy and Meg. Amy marries well, and before that Aunt March buys her proper clothing. She is able to afford the latest styles, the fabric to create those gowns, and lavish furs and jewels. Meg doesn’t have the money to afford those things, she certainly wants them, but she can hardly afford the fabric to make dresses that she wants. There is a scene early on in the film where she is in an everyday work dress that is basically rags. While she has more presentable dresses, she only wears them to town or when she is visiting family, she would never wear them when she was working at home. Amy never has this problem though. She can wear fancy dresses at any time because she doesn’t have to worry about work.
Hi, yes, this is now a Victorian fashion blog. Also, yes, Victorian literature/Victorian history would definitely be my focus should I ever advance my education. And yes, I am also going to riot if Jacqueline Durran does not win the Oscar for costume design.
As you could tell, I did really enjoy this film. It was very pleasing to the eye, and the acting was very good. My biggest issue with the film is how it is set up. It constantly jumps between the four growing up in into adulthood to when their lives lead them away from each other.
I understand the film beginning with Jo in New York City selling her stories as that is one of the highest points in the book. I understand Jo having flashbacks to her life prior to her leaving for New York once she gets the letter that Beth isn’t doing well. That all makes sense to me. The flashback framing device has been used in other adaptations of Little Women, but where the 2019 film fails is in jumping between the two time lines.
There is what is considered the “present” day: Jo in New York, Beth’s failing health, Amy and Laurie in Europe, and the ending of the film. Then there are the flashbacks which are anything prior to Meg’s wedding and Jo’s moving to New York.
While I can see where there is the want to make the story interesting and different as it has been told many times before, the way that the present day and flashbacks are intercut can be very confusing. If someone wasn’t familiar with the story, or wasn’t paying attention, it would be easy to get lost during this film. It would have been better if this film was done on a linear timeline.
The only other issue I have with this film is the continuity. There were multiple points in the film where the continuity was noticeably off. I do not look for continuity errors in films, I want to enjoy them and just soak in the film, but there were quite a few errors that I caught throughout the film. This is a really nit-picky detail, but I needed to point it out.
Overall, I enjoyed watching this film. It definitely deserves the praise it is getting, but it is by no means a perfect film in many ways.