Greta Gerwig’s sophomore feature not only improves on her first effort – 2017 coming of age hit Lady Bird – but quickly establishes itself as the definitive adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s seminal classic: ‘Little Women’. Quite the achievement for the seventh screen take on the story. While a sterling cast and sumptuous production values do much to enhance an experience of the film, it is Gerwig’s creative certainty in reshaping the story, via astute thematic blending, that elevated the wider whole. Nuance bleeds through each and every shot, line and prop so confidently that one might almost mistake the film for an original construct. Gerwig’s understanding of Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy March is every bit as profound as was with Lady Bird herself. What could possibly come next?
Perhaps it is the feeling for modernity and contemporary urgency that helps Gerwig’s Little Women win over audiences with remarkable ease. The techniques at play here are not unfamiliar for period fare – with flashbacks cast in warner, autumnal hues – but gone is all sense of the stuffy. Gerwig recognises in Alcott’s beloved characters wants, wills and struggles that persist in the little women of our own epoch. Conceits of gender equality might well have progressed in hard earned leaps and bounds since 1868 but there’s a very present scream of outrage in the scene that finds Saoirse Ronan’s Jo declare herself sick of being decreed fit only for love, by virtue of her sex. It is well known that Alcott poured much of her own character into her tomboyish heroine, yet, comparison to Lady Bird, suggests Gerwig too found relatability in Jo’s emotional wanderlust. Witness the moment, earlier in the film, Jo announces to fleeting love interest Laurie (Timothée Chalamet) that she ‘can’t get over the disappointment of being a girl’.
That said, to be among these girls is an entirely appealing prospect. Four sisters make up the March quartet, all overseen by the stabling hand of Laura Dern’s Marmee and Meryl Streep’s disparaging Aunt March. Joining Ronan, Sharp Objects’ Eliza Scanlen proves a perfect angel as poor, sweet Beth, while Emma Watson continues her development as an actor of note nicely as would be maternal Meg. A revelation to those only who never caught Lady Macbeth, it is, however, Florence Pugh who stands out best. Pugh’s Amy, a touch less impetuous than in print, has spirit in abundance and is, increasingly, the most worldly of her siblings. Lines delivered with sardonic self-surety come thick and fast but is the scene in which Amy declares marriage to be an ‘economic proposition’ that really shows off Pugh’s calibre. All four play their leads both as young and young adult women, brilliantly capturing a raft of shifts in the communicative personalities of their characters. This is a film both concerned with the transition of girls to womanhood and the role of a mature woman in a world dominated by men.
On base level, there is not so much to the plot of Little Women. All of the major plot points from Alcott’s book feature, with exorcised details still included, in part, through the nods, sighs and glances conveyed by characters in the most passing of moments. Impressively so. Indeed, the detail afforded Gerwig’s Little Women is astounding. From the off, we are introduced to a Jo pretending to be submitting the writing of a friend for publication. Gerwig’s quick cut to Jo’s ink blotched hands tells a different tale. Later, Chris Cooper’s Mr. Lawrence will render pages of exposition redundant with a look of heartbroken longing, on hearing Beth take to his old, abandoned piano, whilst there is raw honesty in Dern’s admission that she feels angry every single day.
In between, Alexandre Desplat’s sweeping, mesmeric soundtrack speaks volumes in an emotive language of its own and there is communicative value too Jacqueline Durran’s fine sartorial choices. Note Jo’s permanently off-piste waistcoats and ambitious Amy’s courtesan birdcages. Meg clothes sensibly, and is berated for one flush of extravagance, and Beth humbly. It all adds up.
Come the film’s delightful finale, a triumph closes. Gerwig is sensible to pair faith to her source with the bravery required to meet the needs of new audiences and new mediums. From Jo and Laurie’s rebellious window way polka to Gerwig’s energetic handling of the novel’s iconic opening chapter – here midway through – there are high points, certainly, but this is too consistently engaging a film to ever succumb to the lulls of a two hour length. The narrative restructuring is Gerwig’s masterstroke but it is a flash of genius in a film that achieves top marks on just about every level. Little Women, big success.