01 January 2020 00:42
For 2019's "Little Women," director and screenwriter Greta Gerwig not only had to ensure it stood on its own two feet but that it also looked and felt vastly different from its many predecessors. For that, she tapped Oscar-nominated production designer Jess Gonchor, whose works include "No Country for Old Men," "Moneyball," and the forthcoming "Quiet Place Part II." In an interview with the LA Times, Gonchor divulged upon the ways in which he ensured the "Little Women" setting and its 19th century set aesthetics could still promote variety. The "Little Women" plot follows the March family, a group of four sisters under one roof, all of whom have their own varied personalities. The star-studded "Little Women" cast includes Emma Watson as Meg, Florence Pugh as Amy, Saoirse Ronan as Jo, Eliza Scanlen as Beth, Laura Dern as Marmee, and Meryl Streep as Aunt March. Whereas other adaptions seemed to focus on the time period and how the girls fit into that era, Gerwig's version more so focuses on the adulthood of the March sisters.
The "Little Women" director told Deadline that she wanted to invite a different structure to the story, examining the "Little Women" plot more so "as something that's a snow globe of a perfect moment that's forever gone." Gonchor likewise related similar notions of Gerwig's film to the LA Times, calling it "a period movie that felt more modern than the others." Gerwig wasn't even supposed to direct "Little Women," yet she took the film to heart and it shows, given its various award nominations and praise. Gonchor added, "I knew that we were going to film the movie at the same place the book was written over a hundred years ago, in Concord, Mass. The stars of Little Women, including Meryl Streep, have talked about how impressed they were by writer/director Greta Gerwig's interpretation of the famous novel. For Gerwig, it's been wonderful validation for a project that has been close to her heart for a long time, a project she fought hard to bring to the big screen. It's odd to begin a review of a movie based on a work as familiar as "Little Women" with a warning about spoilers, but one of the most original inspirations that Greta Gerwig, as writer and director, brings to her adaptation of Louisa May Alcott's novel is a conceit that needs to be revealed in order to make sense of the movie at all.
(It's unclear whether this is due to the nature of her own art or to its interface with Gerwig's direction.) As a result, Ronan is not a powerful presence as Jo March: the character, famous for her anger, for her "temper," comes off as unduly moderate, both inwardly and outwardly—not in conflict with herself, not repressing that rage, but merely claiming one that's hardly in danger of bursting forth. In Gerwig's movie, he encourages her to write from life, to write her experiences realistically and sincerely—and, when she responds that she needs to make a living from her writing and doesn't want to doom herself to a life of penury with books that won't sell, Bhaer counters, "Shakespeare was the greatest poet who ever lived because he smuggled his poetry in popular works." "Little Women" is just such a work of poetic smuggling: a movie made within the norms of the industry that also reflects Gerwig's own personal artistic ideas, ideals, and obsessions. The poverty of the March family is what Jo originally hoped to remedy by selling her writing. In the lead role of "Frances Ha," which she co-wrote with its director, Noah Baumbach, the aspiring dancer and choreographer ends up homeless and alone before fulfilling her artistic dreams—and the movie makes clear that realizing those dreams and putting one's life on a more stable footing are inseparable—even if it elides the practicalities by which Frances gets from desperate isolation to a modicum of success. ("Mistress America," which she also wrote with Baumbach, depicts the disruption of relationships resulting from a writer writing about people close to her.) In "Little Women," Gerwig powerfully, explicitly, and self-consciously puts in the practicalities, showing the decisions and events that lead to Jo becoming a successful author.
It's also possible to view "Little Women" as a comment on the making of "Lady Bird"—the transformation of personal experience and a distinctive family background into art, and, what's more, into popular art. Gerwig dramatizes the obliviousness of a male editor to what would interest female readers (Jo's novel "Little Women" is rescued from his indifference only through a fortunate coincidence) and the compromises that Jo has to make with the book in order to render it marketable and commercial: the depiction of the marriage of Jo and Friedrich, a distortion introduced purely to increase sales potential. And, in the present-day context of a movie about "Little Women," the marriage plot is not what sells. Gerwig also reconfigures dialogue drastically and originally in order to embody her own passionately analytical view of the story's era: women's lack of civil rights, the legal constraints placed on women by marriage, the narrow range of options that American society offered to women at the time, the obstacles faced then (as now) by women in the arts, and even a gleam of classic-Hollywood obnoxiousness, in a line of dialogue delivered by Aunt March that's borrowed from the arrogant yet phonogenic producer Samuel Goldwyn: "I may not always be right, but I'm never wrong." (Florence Pugh's performance as Amy comes closest to embodying the passion that the story evokes.) It's easy to imagine, for instance, how a more fiercely determined performer, such as Brie Larson, would render Jo's scenes with Marmee, as played, with controlled intensity, by Laura Dern, and with Aunt March, played with cantankerous candor by Meryl Streep, all the more combustible. It's not surprising that a story about the relationship between four Civil War-era sisters written over 150 years ago and with absolutely no battlefield scenes is not a favorite with the Xbox set. You could imagine a female Holden, or an equally traumatic betrayal between two young women at an all-girls school. Set in the idyllic town of Concord, MA, Little Women follows the March family as they spend their first Christmas without their father who, after losing all of the family's money, went off to do his part in the Civil War as a pastor. Just like the March sisters, Alcott and her siblings worked many jobs to help make ends meet. In her journals, Alcott wrote that even though she portrayed her mother so highly in the book that "Mrs. March is all true, only not half good enough."