Louisa May Alcott’s 19th-century novel Little Women has been subject to many adaptations over the years and it remains a hugely popular, female-led coming-of-age story for audiences of all ages. Its latest journey to the big screen comes through the pen and the camera of Greta Gerwig, who showed her own aptitude for helming coming-of-age tales with the exceptional Lady Bird. Her take on Alcott’s story is smart, warm and refreshingly modern in its sensibilities.
Gerwig reunites with her Lady Bird star Saoirse Ronan, who plays Jo March – the headstrong, creative, de facto leader of the March sisters. Her older sister Meg (Emma Watson) enjoys the frocks and dances of traditional society, while her younger sibling Amy (Florence Pugh) harbours dreams of becoming a painter. Meanwhile, Beth (Eliza Scanlen) is musically gifted and forms a bond with neighbour Mr. Laurence (Chris Cooper), whose son Laurie (Timothée Chalamet) becomes a friend to the girls. They all live with their kindly mother, whom they call Marmee (Laura Dern), while their father is off fighting in the Civil War.
The joy of Little Women lies in how it embraces the costumes and milieu of its period setting, while the whole thing is permeated with a feel of modernity. It’s not that Gerwig fills her script with anachronisms or transposes the narrative into a more contemporary setting, but there’s something in the fizz of the dialogue and the meter of the performances that seems to key into the same coming-of-age register as Lady Bird and its ilk. Little Women is often described as being a timeless story, and that’s certainly borne out by the fresh lick of paint Gerwig is able to provide.
She is certainly assisted by a selection of excellent performances, with all of the central actors delivering smart, well-observed work. Ronan holds everything together with another of her trademark protagonists – snarky and driven by her desire to break free of her society-mandated restraints – but special praise must go to Florence Pugh, who caps off a terrific year at the multiplex – Fighting With My Family and Midsommar are both among the best of 2019 – with another stunning turn. Amy is notoriously the most divisive of the March siblings but, through Pugh, we understand every petulant decision comes from a desire to be noticed and recognised. She’s problematic when necessary, but also utterly likable and, crucially, real.
The rest of the ensemble cast is very much an embarrassment of riches, with Timothée Chalamet delivering yet another prickly heartthrob as Laurie and Meryl Streep dropping in for a scene-stealing cameo as the bracingly traditional Aunt March. Laura Dern, too, deserves a mention for her tender performance as Marmee. She wants the best for her girls, obviously, but also understands they must be kept on a long leash and allowed to make their own stupid mistakes and find their way in the world. Marmee feels every blow her girls feel, and Dern wears that beautifully. She knows exactly the right thing to say at any moment, and she says it directly and honestly, but with warmth. One moment in which Dern shares a single, pregnant look with Ronan is packed with all of the wordless heartbreak it needs.
Gerwig has stated she lifted much of the dialogue directly from Alcott’s novel, but there’s a pace and a momentum to her storytelling which seems to give the old material a fresh spark and energy. Her new flourishes, too, are terrific. Most notably, there’s a thread about the expectations placed upon female writers, which segues late on into an excellent and resonant riff about the power and importance of writing itself. This also provides the backdrop for Gerwig’s subtle shift of the book’s finale, making it more compatible for modern politics while also retaining profound respect for Alcott.
Little Women has all of the tools necessary to become a definitive modern take on the classic work. It’s a family blockbuster with real energy and fizz, powered by some of the most exciting and talented young performers in Hollywood, as well as an auteur who knows exactly where to channel the abilities of that talent. It is perhaps a little overlong and ponderous but, for those who love the original book or its previous adaptations, it likely won’t be long enough.
Dir: Greta Gerwig
Scr: Greta Gerwig
Prd: Denise Di Novi, Amy Pascal, Robin Swicord
DOP: Yorick Le Saux
Music: Alexandre Desplat
Run time: 135 mins
Little Women is in UK cinemas from 26th December.