After such a modern coming-of-age story in Lady Bird, it sort of makes perfect sense that writer/director Greta Gerwig would turn her hand to a more classic tale of girlhood to womanhood in Little Women.
Based on Louisa May Alcott’s classic novel of the same name, Gerwig’s Little Women is the sort of thing that I might have ducked had it not come from Gerwig’s camp. I fuck with a period piece as long as it promises Sarah Gadon murdering at least one person, but the U-rated, family-friendly ones just aren’t high in my watchlist, to be honest.
But this version of Little Women is pretty much a strident reminder of the power that these kinds of movies can have. Nobody is better-placed than Gerwig and her star-studded cast (Laura Dern, Meryl Streep, Saoirse Ronan, Florence Pugh, Emma Watson, Timothee Chalamet) to lift Alcott’s tale of the March family out of the occasionally (and unfairly) insipid reputation that is has earned over the decades since its release, and this adaptation does just that.
At the centre of this story is Ronan’s Jo, an instantly-iconic
and softly gay-coded version of the middle March sister. Ronan has been slamming it out of the park with classic novel adaptations lately, but this is perhaps her finest performance to date – there’s bite to this Jo, a sharpness and even a sadness that takes us beyond “women are good for more than just marriage” and into “what does life look like for a woman who realizes that” – Gerwig knows just how to write for Ronan by this point, and her dialogue is pinpoint-sharp coming out of her mouth.
But it’s Amy March, as played by Florence Pugh (whom we have stanned and will continue to stan unto eternity), who really makes the biggest jump from book to screen. This version of Little Women is a one-woman Amy redemption machine, determined to fix her from the annoying little sister that she is so often seen as in the book, and just about pulling it off to boot. It helps that Pugh has such a commanding presence, even in her ridiculous self-involvement, but more than anything, Gerwig takes a sympathetic gaze to Amy, a woman pushing against the boundaries of her gender and her time and angry at the world for what it has denied her. Neither does the film shy away from the sheer brutality of what marriage meant for women at the time, eschewing the pure romance and embracing the economic reality and impact on identity that comes with even a loving union.
Beyond just Jo and Amy, the whole March family gets a solid and suprisingly even-handed outing given the sheer amount of story the film has to tell. Emma Watson is pitch-perfect as Meg, and I doubt you’ll ever find a better Lawrie than Timothee Chalamet, somewhere between louche charm and adolescent petulance. The cinematography is gorgeous, the costuming outrageously lovely, the emotion delicate and careful and intermittently devastating.
If, like me, you’re not the period drama type, Little Women is still utterly and totally worth it. When it comes to telling stories about womanhood, little or otherwise, there’s nobody I trust more than Greta Gerwig to do it.
By Louise MacGregor
(header image via Vox)