Little Women review: Greta Gerwig’s loving adaptation waltzes with a literary ghost

The film’s deep generosity cements it as a cinematic achievement, while also ensuring this won’t be the last adaptation we see

Clarisse Loughrey
Wednesday 25 December 2019 11:56 GMT
Little Women (2019) - trailer

Dir: Greta Gerwig. Cast: Saoirse Ronan, Emma Watson, Florence Pugh, Eliza Scanlen, Laura Dern, Timothée Chalamet, Tracy Letts. U cert, 134 mins.

How would Louisa May Alcott reckon with the vastness of her own legacy? Her masterwork, Little Women, has been revisited and reimagined in countless ways since its publication in 1868. There are musicals, an opera, TV serials, an anime series, and a film set in modern-day India. A loosely autobiographical tale about four New England sisters making their first strides into adulthood, Alcott’s book has become the cast-iron foundation from which other writers and artists can build their own beliefs and desires.

Yet the eighth (and latest) film adaptation, directed by Greta Gerwig, has found a way to let the voices of both author and director co-exist as equals. Here, Gerwig waltzes with a literary ghost. A follow-up to her solo directorial debut, 2017’s Lady Bird, Little Women shares many of its predecessor’s concerns – mainly, that womanhood is more infinitely complicated than society ever gives it credit for. Jo (Saoirse Ronan), an aspiring writer and the sister closest in spirit to Alcott herself, finds a moment to let out these frustrations. “Women, they have minds, and they have souls, as well as just hearts,” she says, with tear-flecked eyes. “And they’ve got ambition, and they’ve got talent, as well as beauty, and I’m so sick of people saying that love is just all a woman is fit for. I’m so sick of it!”

Jo’s speech, the quivering heart of Gerwig’s Little Women, doesn’t actually come from the novel itself but another of Alcott’s works, Rose in Bloom. The director is less bothered with preserving the original text than with capturing the mind and spirit of the woman who wrote it. Ideas are borrowed from Alcott’s own correspondence, while Gerwig frames the story with scenes of Jo’s own efforts to sell her writing to a publisher (Tracy Letts). Their conversations hint at the real-life drama behind Little Women’s publication, while Gerwig cleverly rejigs the ending that Alcott only begrudgingly wrote after her audience demanded that Jo land a husband.

Her boldest decision, however, is to tell the story in non-chronological order. We switch between the Marchs in their girlhood and in their womanhood, seven years later. Jo, Amy (Florence Pugh), Meg (Emma Watson), and Beth (Eliza Scanlen) spend their teenage years with their mother (Laura Dern), whom they affectionately call Marmee, as they await the return of their father (Bob Odenkirk), who’s been sent off to serve as a pastor in the American Civil War. This moving back-and-forth in time allows Gerwig to delicately highlight the emotional cycles of a young woman’s life: the blossoming and waning of romance or the way tragedy punctures normality like a knife to the ribs.

In her screenplay, Gerwig carefully laid out where dialogue should overlap, so that the film effortlessly eases in and out of the March’s various mischiefs and disagreements. Their conversations only feel modern because we’re so unused to seeing young people from the past act this vibrant and alive. The casting here (by Kathy Driscoll and Francine Maisler) feels heaven-sent, teasing out the very best sides of its actors: Ronan bristles with suppressed desires, Watson is gentle but correct, Dern glows with kindness, and Scanlen finds new depths to the oh-so tragic Beth. Timothée Chalamet gives Laurie, Jo’s infamous love interest, the soul of a poet. It makes it a little easier to swallow his journey from sweetheart to tyrannical flirt. It’s Pugh, however, who manages to steal the show. She indulges in Amy’s vanity and selfishness, but emphasises equally her intelligence and resilience – she’s the sister most aware of her place in the world, however constricted that may be.

Thanks to Gerwig and her cast, we see familiar characters in a new light and are asked to show empathy towards their imperfections. It’s Little Women’s deep generosity that cements it as a cinematic achievement. Not only that, it ensures that this won’t be the last adaptation we see – I know it left me aching to return to the March household as soon as possible.

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