The March sisters – Jo (Saoirse Ronan), Meg (Emma Watson), Amy (Florence Pugh) and Beth (Eliza Scanlen) – come of age in 1860s New England, in the aftermath of the American Civil War.
Most of us have seen some production or other of Louisa May Alcott’s ‘Little Women’ at this stage. It has been adapted for film eight times as well as being brought to the stage and small screen. Greta Gerwig who so incisively explored the contemporary bildungsroman in her debut ‘Lady Bird’, was the perfect person for the task of coming up with a fresh interpretation, maintaining the narrative’s familiarity but looking at the story and its characters through a distinct and personal lens. Her vision is a methodical, contemplative and all-round extremely enjoyable one to experience.
Cutting between the past and present gives ‘Little Women’ a new edge and the dialogue mixes old school formalities with modern conversation. Those who have read the book or seen other adaptations of it (for many, the 1994 Winona Ryder movie is the point of reference) will recognise key narrative points such Beth becoming ill, Amy falling through the ice, and Laurie’s proclamation of love for Jo. But Gerwig makes interesting stylised choices which will charm both those well-versed in Alcott’s work and those new to it. Gerwig’s script and direction captures the dreaminess, excitement, play and mischief of adolescence versus the practicalities of adulthood in a highly engaging way. You’re elated when the girls come together, and worry for them as they face their individual trials.
In terms of the acting, for Gerwig has gathered a fantastic ensemble, Ronan makes a very good Jo but Florence Pugh outshines her, impressively embodying Amy as she grows from spoilt child to sensible young woman. Scanlen eloquently captures the purity, kindness and innocence of Beth, and while Watson is also competent, one doesn’t feel quite like she made Meg all her own (one is slightly distracted considering how Emma Stone was originally cast). Laura Dern is wonderfully humble and selfless as Marmee, and a burst of love and positivity even when confronted with tragedy; Meryl Streep is Meryl Streep, consistently fabulous; and Timothee Chalamet, who was somewhat disappointing in his last feature, ‘The King’, is more than back on form as Laurie. Indeed Pugh and Chalamet share a scene that left the audience this reviewer saw the film with in stunned silence.
While the events of ‘Little Women’ are very much influenced by its setting, Gerwig also persuasively gestures how the truths of womanhood in that epoch – the pressures of getting married, self-sacrifice for one’s family, the desire for perfectionism, how there are “precious few ways for women” – are still often the case today. She adds a scene where Jo talks of being frustrated that women exist only in relation to men, which is self-aware and incisive, as are lines such as “If I were a girl in a book this would all be easy – I’d just give up the world.” Gerwig also rewrites that familiar “romantic” finale in a very tongue-in-cheek way that Alcott would have adored.
‘Little Women’, aside from being smart, deeply moving, and a worthy interpretation of a beloved classic novel and its iconic characters, is the perfect Christmas movie because it inspires. It is hopeful, wholesome, generous and affectionate. Such qualities need not be reserved exclusively for Christmas either.