Little Women. Written and directed by Greta Gerwig. Starring Saoirse Ronan, Florence Pugh, Timothee Chalamet and Laura Dern. Rating: 7 (out of 10)
People are fiercely protective of their favourite Little Women adaptations.
My mother-in-law watches the 1949 June Allyson/Liz Taylor/Janet Leigh version religiously, and has never seen another. For others, Katharine Hepburn in George Cukor’s 1933 film is the quintessential Jo. I grew up loyal to Winona Ryder in the 1994 version, but there have been far more TV adaptations than there are March sisters, plus an opera and a ballet.
Still, Greta Gerwig felt there was room for yet another take on Louisa May Alcott’s classic novel.
The director rounds up Saoirse Ronan and Timothee Chalamet, her stars in last year’s Lady Bird, as well as Florence Pugh (Midsommar), Eliza Scanlen (HBO’s Sharp Objects) and Laura Dern and Meryl Streep, and she gamely puts a new spin on an old tale. And she half succeeds in creating the perfect new Little Women.
Gerwig’s version starts where others nose toward the end credits, with tomboyish author Jo (Ronan) peddling her stories to a newspaper editor (Timothy Letts, another Lady Bird alum). He’s looking for scandal and swoon, not morality plays, but Jo keeps returning to the story of her sisters and the home fires they kept burning in tidy Concord, Mass. We jump back and forth between present day and the past – which forms Jo’s narrative – frequently.
Loving mom “Marmee” (Laura Dern) presides over her girls while father is away. The Civil War is raging and times are tough, relatively speaking. Meg (Emma Watson), Jo, Beth (Scanlen) and Amy (Pugh) mend old clothes, complain of hunger, but still find enough to go around for the paupers worse off in their neighbourhood. They are lucky to have the occasional patronage of their wealthy neighbour Mr. Laurence (Chris Cooper), who gifts them another valuable asset: his entertaining grandson “Laurie” (Chalamet).
But most of you know all of this already. Most viewers are waiting for the hair disasters and book-burnings that defined the original story, and Gerwig incorporates all of these, as well as time-worn quotes from the book. She clearly has affection for the source material, which she expands upon by making her characters fully formed women with a healthy helping of self-determination. Jo’s struggles as a writer take centre stage (there’s a beautiful scene of Jo sleeping among her pages carefully laid out); Meg’s decision to marry Mr. Brooke (James Norton, “Grantchester”) is, for better or for worse, her own; Beth is still a tragic character but less pitiful than in other iterations.
But it’s Amy who is transformed, utterly. Amy, the petulant, indulged littlest woman, is finally redeemed by Gerwig’s adaptation. “I want to be great, or nothing,” she says, upon realizing that her art is accomplished, but far from genius. It’s Amy who gives the most convincing and moving feminist speech of the film, and Pugh makes her restless and wistful, not spoiled and whiny.
Jo is, of course, the star of the show, and Ronan plays her with breathless confidence through all the yearning, temper and self-doubt for which the beloved character is famous. It’s no secret that the character of Jo most closely resembled Alcott herself, who was raised in a politically progressive household; her parents hid slaves who had escaped via the Underground Railroad, were briefly part of a Transcendentalist commune, and were friendly with Thoreau, Hawthorne and Emerson.
Unfortunately, newcomers to the story are sure to be confused about the time jumps. Apart from the sun-bathed hue assigned to flashbacks (unhelpful during indoor scenes: no sun), there isn’t enough delineation between past and present to keep us from wondering where we are in the story. The non-linear approach, while novel, is ultimately unnecessary and makes the narrative feel clunkier than it should be. It deletes the anticipation of major life events, and makes the film feel like an Alcott highlight reel rather than a cosy family tale.
This is why the film half succeeds: it caters only to those familiar with Alcott’s work while alienating potential new devotees. But for that former group Gerwig’s film is wonderful; the performances, careful attention to detail and slightly modernized characters make it so.