Director: Greta Gerwig
Writer: Greta Gerwig
Starring: Saoirse Ronan, Emma Watson, Florence Pugh
Jo March (Ronan) reflects back and forth on her life with her three sisters during the American Civil War and how their very different personalities led to them all choosing very different paths.
Though we may hate to admit it, the main awards ceremonies are never a true reflection of the best films from the last twelve months (film is very subjective after all), but the undeniable fact is that a vast majority of the films that get the main award nominations were originally made with that intention. Perhaps not initially, but somewhere along the line the people involved get the bug and see themselves potentially collecting the big awards, and make sure that from that point the film is made to fit the required mould of an awards contender, whether that be the narrative, the marketing or just the release date. The undeniable fact is that when making Little Women all involved had the words ‘for your consideration’ not even at the back of their mind, but at the very forefront of it. This may be influenced by the fact that the film that has a female writer/director, a predominantly female leading cast and even has the word ‘women’ in the title – they could all see the headlines!
Little Women is a film that shares so many characteristics with 2019 best picture winner Green Book in that it is a good (but conventional) story made with the utmost competence. This all-round competence that is elevated by very good performances makes Little Women a good film (as indeed was the case with Green Book), but its obvious intention to never even attempt to deviate from the middle of the road and ‘the step by step narrative guide of how to make an Oscar winning film’ textbook prevents it from ever even potentially being a great film. It even has Alexandre Desplat composing its score – who is renowned for composing competent (but generic) plinkity-plonk film scores! For that reason alone, it is does not in my view deserve to win awards.
Little Women does of course have many very good qualities and is extremely watchable – if ultimately very forgettable due to its lack of any true substance and reluctance to take any kind of risks. It is extremely well acted, wonderfully shot and Greta Gerwig does some interesting (albeit very safe) things with the source material that completely justifies yet another version of Louisa May Alcott’s 1868 novel. I have never read the book, but it is quite clear that despite keeping the film set during and after the American Civil War, a lot of the dialogue has definitely been (slightly) modernised. This does certainly work and adds humour and warmth to both individual scenes and the overall story, though naturally without taking any risks of course! Whilst Gerwig’s decision to tell the story in a non-linear fashion is extremely effective and having scenes of the sisters at their ‘current’ age alongside scenes of when they were younger often works very well and adds genuine emotional power to these scenes when shown side by side.
However, though the narrative structure may be described as ‘unconventional’ by some (it has been used many, many times before – so I would personally describe it as an actual convention) there is quite literally nothing unconventional about what happens within the narrative. It all plays out like a Dickens novel, and what happens to the various characters by the film’s very neat and tidy conclusion is all extremely predictable, and this is often due to some narrative contrivances. There is no getting away from the fact that Little Women is what could be described a ‘nice’ or ‘harmless’ film, and in this increasingly cruel and unforgiving world there is certainly a place for films like that, but with so many narrative developments relying on characters doing nice, and often philanthropic, things for others, this does not only feel like narrative contrivances, but also slight naivety about human nature. Don’t get me wrong, Little Women does have some bleak moments, but certainly could have many, many bleaker moments if it were not for characters (sometimes inexplicably) doing nice things for others. Pretty much every narrative development can be predicted from the outset, even though unfortunately some of the narrative developments in the final third seem a little too convenient and contrived.
The performances from the strong cast are all excellent and their natural chemistry does help to make the relationship between the four sisters believable and the real emotional lynchpin of the entire narrative. Likewise, Laura Dern is excellent as their mother. Even the casting decisions do reek of ‘for your consideration’; Saoirse Ronan has proved herself to be a great actress (or female actor – I am not sure what the appropriate words are anymore!) in many roles, and so would always be the first choice to play the leading role in a film about women that desperately wants to win awards. The rest of the cast are all very good, even Emma Watson is okay (whose casting is probably an even more cynical and commercially minded decision than that of casting Saoirse Ronan), but she does seem to have the least to do – despite being the second name on the poster!
From a technical point of view Little Women is also very competently made; Gerwig’s direction, the set design, the autumnal cinematography by Yorick Le Saux and Alexandre Deplat’s score are all very good. Once again everything is done with the utmost competence, but without any risk taken. Though it could have certainly been a good 15 minutes shorter so to maintain a better pace, there is no denying that Little Women is a good film that is very watchable. However, for me the great films take risks and try to actually steer away from the middle of the road. If these risks don’t work out then that almost certainly means no awards, so all involved in Little Women obviously don’t even want to consider taking any risks – and this is summed up in the film’s sickeningly neat and tidy final scene. Little Women is the kind of the film that will be on TV on Christmas Day afternoon and can be enjoyed by all generations of the family, but is likely to however be the least memorable thing about that day.
A film that so desperately wants to win awards that every scene has ‘for your consideration’ written all over it; there is no denying that Little Women is made with the utmost competence, and thanks to that and the great performances it is very watchable, but its ultimate lack of ambition and risk taking renders it highly forgettable.