Greta Gerwig’s adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women is utterly ravishing.
Given that Little Women, Alcott’s classic American novel, has been rewritten for the screen seven times already, you’d be forgiven for questioning why we need another film adaptation and why Greta Gerwig chose to walk such a well-trodden path for her follow-up to 2017’s excellent Lady Bird. But what becomes abundantly clear mere moments into Gerwig’s film is just how much she has engaged with and been shaped by Alcott’s writing. This was a film she felt she simply had to make, and we should be very glad she did.
The story – if you don’t know already – revolves around the March sisters Jo (Saoirse Ronan), Meg (Emma Watson), Amy (Florence Pugh), and Beth (Eliza Scanlen) as they come of age in Massachusetts during the American Civil War. With their father fighting, they live with their loving mother Marmie (Laura Dern), as they try to make something of themselves, something which according to their embittered Aunt March (a delightfully sour Meryl Streep) also means finding a wealthy young man to marry. Laurie (Timothée Chalamet), the son of their rich neighbour Mr Laurence (Chris Cooper), appears a prime suitor who quickly becomes close with the sisters. Jo is the central focus as a headstrong writer dedicated and desperate to make it as a wordsmith.
Little Women as never seen before
One of Gerwig’s key signatures on the film is her non-linear approach to time. Scenes are spliced between timeframes as differing tones of a warm, halcyon adolescence and the colder, more melancholic light of the present day engage in cinematic parlance. Gerwig’s gift shines through in not only what she includes, but so too the turning points and years that the story omits. It’s a use of ellipsis that can often jar and befuddle, but here the writer-director deftly uses it as a kind of layering, cushioning a two-hour film into a finely detailed story.
Much of this, of course, comes from the writing, and Gerwig finds and reworks material that feels sharply relevant to our time. Jo’s struggles as a female writer taking draft after draft to a somewhat cynical publisher played by Tracy Letts speak to today’s world, with a clear relevance to Gerwig’s career as a female filmmaker. Similarly, the scenes of sisterhood as they grow up have an irresistible wholesomeness that swerves the saccharine.
Attention to detail
Cinematographer Yorick Le Saux imbues these flashback-like moments with a warm hue that contrasts the blue chills of the present day, most notably during a heart-wrenching beach scene between Jo and Beth. Likewise, costume designer Jacqueline Durran exhibits similar attention to detail, dressing Greta’s all-star cast in lush and vivid threads key to adding the kind of cinematic texture that a literary adaptation needs.
Characters brought to life by Ronan and Pugh
Timothée Chalamet brings his typical poise to the much lusted-for Laurie, yet it’s Ronan and Pugh who particularly prosper. The former delivers her most complete turn yet; her Jo has a fire that burns bright and is more than capable of bearing the weight of the film, and the reputation of Alcott’s text, on her shoulders. Look no further than her impassioned and empowering speech to Marmie in the third act. Pugh, meanwhile, balances levels of maturity with excellent versatility.
Without divulging too much, Gerwig reworks the ending with supreme sleight of hand, neither too ambiguous nor clear-cut. This sumptuous film has been nonsensically absent from Golden Globes and BAFTA nominations lists, decisions that should baffle and enrage in equal measure. It’s an enveloping and embracing adaptation to the extent that not only do you believe in the story you see, but rather Gerwig’s Little Women takes place in a world you desperately want to be in.