Review – Little Women (2019)

Director: Greta Gerwig

Starring: Saoirse Ronan, Florence Pugh, Emma Watson, Eliza Scanlan, Timothee Chalament, Laura Dern, Meryl Streep, Chris Cooper

Little Women

Before she made Lady Bird, the coming-of-age drama that put her on the map, Greta Gerwig had already written her adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women. Despite there already being six film adaptations of the novel, not to mention numerous television movies and mini-series, and the knowledge that no one would back an unproven director to make it, Gerwig felt that was still something vital in the story of the Marsh sisters and a 21st century audience warranted its own telling of the tale. With Lady Bird’s Oscar-nominated success giving her the chance to prove it, on both counts it appears she was correct.

Little Women offers vignettes from the lives of the four Marsh sisters, Jo (Saoirse Ronan), Meg (Emma Watson), Amy (Florence Pugh) and Beth (Eliza Scanlen), as they grow from girlhood to womanhood in 19th century Massachusetts under the watchful eye of their mother, Marmee (Laura Dern). Each sister has their own talents and ambitions and their own path to follow, but they share in a desire to live life on their own terms.

Gerwig’s Little Women is a strikingly modern feeling film, devoid of the stuffiness sometimes associated with the period drama. Where we are used to the modernising of classic stories being achieved through transplanting them into contemporary settings and updating the dialogue, Gerwig trusts the timelessness of the text, finding and emphasising the modern sensibility that already exists within it. The result is a resonant, feminist film about young women’s desire to define themselves and their place in the world. It is a desire that is as profoundly expressed in Meg’s decision to marry and have children as it is in Jo’s to spurn those expectations. It is not the outcome that matters, but the ownership of the decisions that get them there.

Rather than adhering to the chronology of the novel, Gerwig cuts the story in half and presents it as two parallel timelines, one starting in 1861 and one in 1868. We switch back and forth between their youth in which they are all together, and their adulthood in which they are living their separate lives. This jumping back and forth means the incredible warmth and energy of this bustling house of girls is not lost as the film progresses. It also brings their younger selves into conversation with their older selves, re-contextualising scenes and moments that we are familiar with, allowing us to experience them in a different light. 

Little Women 1

Beth (Emma Watson), Amy (Florence Pugh), Joe (Saoirse Ronan) and Beth (Eliza Scanlan)

In capturing the energy  of this home, alive with joy and jealousy, camaraderie and competition, Gerwig is aided by wall-to-wall outstanding performances. Gerwig has the same actors play the characters across the different time periods, relying on performance, tweaks to costume and hair style, and different colour palettes to help us keep track of timelines. While every character is not given equal focus, they each get their moment to ensure they all feel fully formed. Fierce, headstrong and smart, Jo is the spotlight role and an easy character to love. Ronan, reuniting with the director after Lady Bird, is brilliant as always. It is Florence Pugh, though, who is a revelation. She takes a character, Amy, who can come across as shallow and unlikeable and puts her alongside Jo as the most compelling in the film. The reordering of the scenes changes our experience of her character, we see her struggle to step out of Jo’s shadow and are able to empathise with her rather than see her as petulant. Her monologue to Laurie (Timothy Chalamet) about marriage as an economic decision for a woman brings the house down. Supporting performances from Chalamet, Laura Dern and Chris Cooper as Mr. Laurence are equally tremendous.

The restructured narrative also centres the story on Jo’s development as a writer and, in doing so, on the idea of women’s stories. The film start with Jo selling her first story in the offices of a New York newspaper, being instructed by an editor (Tracy Letts) to ensure her heroine is married by the tale’s resolution. These pulpy adventure tales are an extension of the plays she wrote for her sisters to perform in their youth. However, Jo is affronted when her colleague Friedrich (Louis Garrel) suggests the work is beneath her and challenges her to write something more meaningful. When her sister Beth falls ill, Jo regales her with the stories of their lives. Encouraged to write them down, she remarks that they are not important enough, to which Amy astutely responds that it is the act of writing them down that makes them important. It is an exchange that speaks to the industry into which the film is being released. An industry that worried that not enough men would be interested in seeing Little Women for it to be commercially viable. An industry which has nominated only five women for Best Director in the 92 year history of the Academy Awards and continues to lionise stories of male angst at the expense of examinations of women’s experiences. It is the telling of women’s stories, and their promotion and recognition with awards, that will make them important, shifting stagnant attitudes about their perceived value.

With its period setting and design (shout out to Jacqueline Durran’s Oscar winning costumes), Little Women is a logistical step up for Gerwig yet she navigates it without sacrificing or compromising her directorial voice. In the wrong hands Alcott’s story could be saccharin and hokey, but Gerwig’s fresh and vital film makes it feel real and relevant. There have been satisfying adaptations of Little Women before, but Gerwig makes it sing.

Rating: ★★★★★

Review by Duncan McLean

Have you seen Little Women? Leave a comment and let us know what you thought.

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