This is an adaptation full of life and vibrant energy that boasts some wonderful performances, impeccable, cinematography, and a few big flaws. It is however a joy to watch and should definitely be sought out by anyone even with those unfamiliar with the book or previous adaptations.
The film is described as a coming of age story set in Connecticut during and following the Civil War. It is that only in the most rudimentary sense. The film is an encapsulation of the lives of a family of spirited women as they face the world around them and find their places in it. It really feels like a time machine at times. Like somehow writer/director Greta Gerwig was able to capture a series of moments from the lives of this family. The actors, characterizations, and period details all feel so genuine and full that the movie completely transports the viewer to a different time and place.
The family is made up of four sisters, Jo, (played perfectly by Saoirse Ronan) Amy, (a stunning performance by Florence Pugh) Meg, (a pretty good Emma Watson) and Beth (Eliza Scanlon in the thankless role of the “perfect” sister).
Jo is a fiercely independent woman who wants to be a writer. Saoirse Ronan here imbues Jo with a willfulness and confidence that hides an internal battle about who she is vs who she’s supposed to be and what she wants vs what she needs. It’s a fantastic performance.
Emma Watson is good, but her performance feels unnatural at times and studied at others. She has some wonderful moments where she sheds this affectation, but her performance doesn’t feel entirely even.
Florence Pugh as Amy is incredible here. Early on Amy is a bratty and horrible little sister, later she is mature and self possessed and very serious about the world she lives in. Pugh is able to play an entire life in this movie and make it convincing and whole.
Eliza Scanlon plays Beth. Beth has a lot of small wordless scenes that convey so much, but Beth is a character who has an effect on those around her not so much a story of her own in this movie. Beth changes their neighbor, played brilliantly by Chris Cooper, her goodness has a profound impact on her sisters, and her strength in particular affects Jo. But she doesn’t really get her own story.
Using these sisters the film is able to fully explore a breadth of perspectives and ideas. Jo believes in independence and challenges Meg’s desire for marriage and a home. The wonderful thing about this movie is that it gives both perspectives their due. meg wants what she wants and just because it isn’t what Jo wants doesn’t make it invalid or less worthy. This film is full of such exchanges and discussions. These characters challenge each other and the viewer in wonderful ways.
The biggest drawback to the film is also one of its assets. It employs a loose time frame construction often cutting back and forth between the characters adult lives and their time spent as children growing up together. This cross cutting undermines the earlier scenes as they happen without context, and it creates confusing as to when and where we are in the story. However, later on it does make for a deeply impactful montage between two moments in Jo’s life. It would not have the emotional explosion it does without the cutting back and forth.
Another problem is with the ending. The film plays with the reality of the story in a way that makes sense only if the viewer knows the story of the books publishing history. The book was written by Louisa May Alcott in two parts, and for the second part her publisher demanded that she include a love interest for one character. Alcott threw in a love interest rather carelessly as a means of appeasing the publisher. The film makes a commentary on that publisher, but in doing so it breaks the reality of the movie. It calls into question the existence of an entire character in the movie. It twists the reality of the story in such a way that it may break the movie for some, or it’ll pass by entirely unnoticed. For me it broke the reality and distracted me from enjoying the ending of the story.
There is a scene in which Chris Cooper and Saoirse Ronan talk outside the house because Cooper’s character is too afraid to go inside, and it is one of the most heart wrenching scenes of any movie this year. It is full of heart and truth just like so much of this movie.
It is my cup of tea. A-