Writer and director Greta Gerwig follows up her acclaimed solo directing debut, Ladybird, with this effervescent adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s beloved 1868 novel.
Little Women follows the four March sisters – headstrong emerging writer, Jo (Saoirse Ronan); quiet, domestic Meg (Emma Watson); saintly Beth (Eliza Scanlen); and puckish, artful Amy (Florence Pugh) – as they grow to womanhood in Civil War-era Massachusetts and beyond. Contending with poverty, social expectation, and their own dreams being potentially thwarted by both, the four navigate adolescence under the care of their doting mother, Marmee (Laura Dern), with help from both rich aunt March (Meryl Streep) and kindly neighbour Mr. Laurence (Chris Cooper), whose grandson, the charming Laurie (Timothee Chalamet), falls for the tomboyish Jo.
And really, in terms of plot, that’s your lot, but reducing Gerwig’s masterful, huge-hearted film to mere plot mechanics is to do it a disservice. Little Women is a profoundly loving and deeply affecting piece of cinema that finds deserved fascination in the interior lives of its largely female ensemble and lets its ridiculously talented cast give full voice to them. In terms of sheer emotional astuteness, its only competition this year is the sublime Portrait of a Lady on Fire, but where that film is a tragedy, Little Women is a celebration – of sorority, family, femininity, artistry. Gerwig careful restructures the source novel’s chronology to ensure that every emotional arc is fully realised and foregrounded, pairing incidents and details that might have been lost if presented chronologically.
Tonally, it’s a remarkable balancing act, steeped in whimsy but never blind to the struggles of its characters. As women in the 19th century, all four sisters are constrained by their circumstances and their gender; while Jo yearns for a literary career that is deemed unsuitable for a girl, Meg embraces the domesticity and relative poverty her status avails her. Beth, always the least complex character in any version of the story, is struck with illness (the book’s over a century old so let’s not quibble about spoilers) and so it falls to Amy, who dreams of a career as a painter, to marry well for the sake of the family. The oppression of women is never shied away from, but neither is it depicted with too heavy a hand; rather, Gerwig counterpoints the life and vivacity of the girls with quietly devastating moments that underpin how easily and relentlessly that life could be ground down by the world. The scene where Amy admits her artistic ambitions are beyond her is a heartbreaker.
But the film refuses to wallow, instead putting the emphasis on sisterly solidarity and simple joys. It’s a film packed with perfect little moments of grace and love: the March sisters putting on a play for the neighbouring kids, Laurie and Jo dancing together, the family patriarch (an unexpected cameo from Bob Odenkirk) finally coming home from the war, and basically everything that Pugh’s Amy ever does – in a cast not short on talent she’s the clear MVP, which is quite something in an ensemble that includes Streep and Tracy Letts.
In a box office season dominated by bombast and big effects pictures, there’s a chance that film of this scale and genre (and, let’s face it, focusing on this gender) might slip past the average viewer – don’t let that happen to you. Little Women is an assured, cathartic, uplifting triumph of cinema, and one that incontrovertibly proves Greta Gerwig is one of the best filmmakers we’ve got right now. (9/10)
Little Women opens in cinemas Jan 1, 2020.