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Cinematic Releases: Little Women (2019) - Reviewed

Posted By themoviesleuth 1615 days ago on Entertainment

http://www.spoilerfreemoviesleuth.com - “I want to do something splendid...something heroic or wonderful that won't be forgotten after I'm dead. I don't know what, but I'm on the watch for it and mean to astonish you all someday.”  Steeling her resolve with a sharp breath and a self-assured nod of the head, Jo March (Saoirse Ronan) gathers her nerves and confidently struts headlong into a den of vipers, that parlor of patriarchy known as the publishing house. Her ink-stained hands give the lie to her claim that she's shopping around stories "for a friend," and she squirms uncomfortably while the myopic editor (Tracy Letts) slashes her story to ribbons, only to offer her $20 for his final cut. Knowing better than to look a gift horse in the mouth, she takes the offer, as that's the best a young woman of her station is likely to get in life at that time. And she'll make sure to tell her "friend" next time, that if the main character of her story is a girl, to have her married or dead by the end of the tale. Wait a minute.....this isn't how the story begins, is it? Director Greta Gerwig's singular triumph of vision in the latest adaptation of Louisa May Alcott's Little Women is structural. Rather than telling this timeless tale in a linear fashion, like the countless adaptations before it, she and editor Nick Houy brilliantly employ a series of flashbacks and flashforwards that seamlessly weave the tale of the March sisters from the hopeful austerity of their childhood into the inevitable male-dominated disappointment of their young adulthood. Debutante balls give way to funerals, pillow fights to weddings, Christmas breakfasts to playing dress-up in the attic, and the result is a sustained feeling of jubilant exhilaration that has rarely been brought to life outside the crisp prose of the original novel. Gerwig manages to pull off an expert meta-narrative coup as she brings us both an adaptation of Little Women and a story about Little Women, placing front and center Jo's struggle to tell her own story in a world with no room for women's stories. Gerwig's auspicious 2017 directorial debut, Lady Bird (also starring Ronan), was already one of the best films of the decade, and with her follow-up she's only managed to top herself. Given the trend, one is simultaneously left questioning how it's even possible to do better next time, yet also having no doubt she will. The film does not begin with Jo, Meg, Amy, and Beth March at home in Concord, Massachusetts, during the Civil War, but rather seven years later, with the little women truly little women, separated and trying to make their own way in the world. Spirited, headstrong, and often petulant, Jo is living in a boarding house in New York, trying to live by her pen and support her sisters on the pittance she's thrown for her stories. Youngest sister Amy (a simply perfect Florence Pugh, who wears a flower crown for the second time in 2019 along with Midsommar) is studying painting abroad in Paris as the traveling companion to the baleful heiress Aunt March (played by--who else?--Meryl Streep), who never ceases to remind her that the only chance she has as a beautiful young woman without means, is to marry wealthy. The oldest sister, elegant yet traditional Meg (a somewhat disappointing Emma Watson), suffers silently at home as a loving mother who married for love to a penniless tutor, yearning for the pomp and flourish of society balls she'll never see again. Remaining at home through it all, with the sweetest soul yet frailest constitution of them all, is the beloved and tragic Beth, who forms a loving bond with the grandfatherly and altruistic Mr. Laurence (Chris Cooper). Ronan has already proven herself to be the best actor of her generation time and time again, having garnered three Academy Award nominations by the ripe age of 25. As such, her performance is as perfect as ever, so much so that although she anchors the story, the audience can stay emotionally tethered to her arc while also comfortably shifting its focus to other characters.  She inhabits the role so fully and naturally that it would be more noticeable if she didn't turn in amazing work. This is a treat for us, because Gerwig (who also wrote the screenplay) allows us to bask in the redemptive glory of Pugh's Amy March, finally given the justice she deserves in a nuanced and emotionally complex portrayal. Amy was long the most hated of the March sisters, viewed by generations of readers as a spoiled vindictive brat, who has the audacity to hit Jo where it hurts her the most AND go after her man (Timothee Chalamet as Laurie, all high cheekbones, boyish charm, and mischief). This time around, Amy is the best part of the movie. She's just as high-spirited, ambitious, and impetuous as Jo, but because she's "the pretty one" and not tomboyish or talented, the sadness of accepting her fate--that she has no choice but to marry rich or die a spinster--is all the more tragic. (Pugh, with her pass-me-a-smoke throaty voice and confident poise, seems older than her 23 years, and along with Little Women has already turned in one of the year's best performances in Ari Aster's Midsommar. She'll soon be a household name when she hits the screen as Scarlett Johansson's sister in Black Widow.)The nonlinear narrative hijinks can be a bit jarring at first, and I often caught myself looking for cues to make sure I knew what timeframe we were in. Has Jo sold her hair yet? Is Amy in pigtails, or French braids? Is Laurie in a grey silk waistcoat, or a burnt umber silk waitcoast? Does Aunt March look nearly dead, or actually dead? Similarly, while Emma Watson is certainly a star, she's yet to prove herself as an actress. Some of that may stem from Meg being the most lifeless of the four sisters, and she gives it her best, but ultimately she just comes off as uninteresting compared to Jo and Amy. No film is perfect, of course. But this one comes pretty damn close. Don't miss it. --Eugene Kelly 

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