Director: Greta Gerwig Starring: Saoirse Ronan, Florence Pugh, Emma Watson, Eliza Scanlen, Timothée Chalamet, Laura Dern, Meryl Streep Running Time: 135 minutes
Not having yet read Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women or seen any of the previous film versions means that it’s difficult in many ways to discuss the latest version by Greta Gerwig’s success as an adaptation. Will those who have read the coming of age story of the March sisters cover to cover dozens of times take issue with characterisations that I wouldn’t spot, or balk at Gerwig’s remixing of the story? Possibly, but even without familiarity it is possible to describe how the film feels and to add by way of ringing endorsement that Gerwig’s take on a book around 150 years old is so fresh and vibrant as to shoot it up to the top of the aul’ “must read list”. It feels like someone who loves a story very deeply gush over all the little details of it to you, feeling for the characters like they’re old friends and filling you in with every bit of their lives, a warm and welcoming time in the cinema.
From the film’s opening moments where Saoirse Ronan’s Jo marches into a publishing house to submit a story written by her “friend”, jittery but determined, Little Women is focused on centering women’s stories in one way or another. Sat across from her is Tracy Letts, telling her that since if her story’s main character’s a girl, to make sure she’s married by the end, elbowing in on her words but still very much on the sidelines. Whether it’s Letts condescension, the March sisters’ father and his longing letters to come home from the Civil War or the perfectly cast Timothée Chalamet and Chris Cooper as timeless fuckboy Laurie and his wealthy father, quietly, gently envious of the March family’s closeness, men in this story are in the outside looking in, the better to allow the lives of the March sisters to breathe.
We see them play and fight and flourish, Gerwig’s understanding of each of them radiating through; Jo’s individuality and burning desire to write and be read may be the easiest for creatives and bookish types to latch onto, but here every sister’s wants, needs and motivations are lent equal importance. Amy (Florence Pugh), striving for greatness as an artist and deeply resentful of second best, Meg (Emma Watson), gentler in temperament, starry-eyed, compassionate and needing to be loved, even Beth (Eliza Scanlen) as a quieter observer has moments of self-satisfaction. Capturing the girls as they grow up in their relatively modest Massachusetts home, and on into their early adulthoods, the film allows viewers to either identify with the girls’ big personalities or, like the Laurences, to desire their connection. Their lives are in some ways idyllic, but not idealised, benefitting from the generosity of their neighbours and giving to poorer neighbours in turn. As with Gerwig’s seminal growing-up story Lady Bird, the leads can infuriate a viewer a second after making them feel seen, the director bringing engagingly rounded performances out of archetypes.
Form and function pair beautifully here to bring out those emotions. Rather than playing out chronologically, Gerwig cuts back and forth from the girls’ storied youth to their more present struggles as they try to find their old ways when they’re older. Working with editor Nick Houy, the director pairs moments with precision; contextualising and recontextualising, unearthing new details and popping some underlining some gorgeous visuals. What could just be vignettes and these lives is expanded into something vibrant, fizzing with life, luring audiences in with sweet siren song to shatter them all the harder on the rocks of the sad times. Shot on film and with natural light, every frame communicates the mood: great times in warm summers, drained colours for uncertainty and despair in the cold. Gerwig works brilliantly with her actors once again, from the main stars to the supporting cast. Devastating loneliness can cut through the charm at any time from any character. The standouts though, are Chalamet, Ronan and especially Pugh, the best performances to date of three stars with long careers ahead of them yet. Pugh seethes, her face crumples, one can almost feel the frame about to be torn apart as her inner longings rage inside her. Ronan and Gerwig are a creative pair as finely in simpatico as any actor/director duo around these days. Ronan’s Jo is perfectly balanced between what could seem like contradictions, lonely but self-determined, steely but lacking confidence.
Adaptations and coming-of-age stories are both prone to indulge in nostalgia, but one of Little Women‘s many great achievements is so well it demonstrates memories – the beauty in them, the lessons in them – without being clouded, and without getting lost in the past. Remembering something after all, is something you do now, presently, and by remixing this classic book’s story and by looking at a beloved story from childhood through the eyes of one of our best modern directors, emotions that are internal, immediate and intense become ablaze in this; one of the best films of the year and a ringing confirmation of Gerwig’s talents. A film that will reward long-time lovers of this story and create new ones from the uninitiated, these marvelous, moving Little Women‘s stories demand to be told by demanding to be told.
(4.5 / 5)