Question: How do you re-energise a classic American novel that has been reinterpreted nine times?
Answer: Put it in the hands of the ever-talented Greta Gerwig.
The 36-year-old writer director knocks it out of the park once again with Little Women, a coming of age narrative from Lousia May Alcott that feels both of the time it’s set and as it’s produced. Following the success of Lady Bird in 2017, Gerwig tackles similar themes of family and relationships but in a wholly new environment. If you’re looking for something wholesome to settle in for, then this could be just the film to see!
Little Women follows the March sisters – fiery and independent Jo (Saorsie Ronan), sassy and bratty Amy (Florence Pugh), calm and traditional Meg (Emma Watson) and the quiet, musically gifted Beth (Eliza Scanlan) – through their adolescent lives in 1860s America, and we watch how their formative journeys interconnect. Boldly, the narrative structure dances neatly between the present and seven years prior as the girls grow up with their neighbour Laurie (Timothée Chalamet). Knowing where our sisters end up but instead following the journey that brings them to their respective ends pays bloody dividends.
This gutsy approach gives us clearer character arcs and so the past and the present are fluidly linked – which for one moment left me a bit emotional (sans spoiler material). While some have found the chronology muddling, Gerwig uses colour to flag which timeline we’re in – gold tinted vibrance equals yearning for the past and the blueish grey equals the reality of adulthood.
Every character feels authentic from outspoken Jo (Ronan) to the prickly Aunt March (Meryl Streep), even to smaller parts like the borderline boorish publisher Mr Dashwood (Tracey Letts). All characters are given a lease of life from a director who has spoken openly about the collaborative process she takes with actors. My personal highlight was Jo’s younger sister Amy (Florence Pugh), she crackles with an energy that’s hard to pinpoint. Amy is flawed: she is at times bratty, even vindictive. Yet Pugh imbues her with this childlike wonder that makes her hard to ignore. It also shouldn’t be understated how beautifully these characters interact with each other. If you’re a sucker for overlapping dialogue and a cacophony of conversation then this is the film for you, and for me, this exemplifies family in the best way. I love hearing how creators build these moments so if that tickles your fancy check out this clip.
Interestingly, Gerwig is still able to add one final twist on this seminal piece of American literature, by embedding the creation of the novel into the story itself. Our main character Jo writes Little Women the book as opposed to Alcott herself. As such this film becomes the journey of a female artist – at a point in time that’s hostile to women and their stories, particularly stories from their own perspective that refuse to pander to the male gaze. This theme bookends the films neatly, opening with the struggles of Jo to get work published for her ‘friend’ and the desire for her publisher to change the ending for economic gain. A theme which is all too common in Hollywood today, one that is probably close to home for Gerwig a filmmaker who has worked in almost every position imaginable (actor, writer, director, lighting, set design) to get films over the line.
Little Women led me through the whole roster of emotions; I laughed, cried, wished them well on their journey ahead. This is a film that manages to pack themes of womanhood, family, marriage and pragmatism vs idealism in the name of love. Yet it still maintains the humour and brevity that sees sisters pretending to be Abraham Lincoln, sharing Christmas dinner without their father for another long year, and putting on plays for the other children in the village – sisters who share the good with the bad. Gerwig creates a film that’s sprawling and even messy, much like life. I can guarantee there’s something for everyone.
5 tiniest ladies out of five.
Words by Joshua Cahill
Josh watched 500 films last year so you didn’t have to.