To make it clear before I dive in, I haven’t seen any previous adaptations of Little Women and I haven’t read the book. I’m aware of the story, Little Women is one of those works which has become culturally ubiquitous, but I wasn’t fully familiar with the story. My excitement for this was based more on the cast assembled and the love I had for Greta Gerwig’s previous film, Lady Bird. Even with the strong reviews raising my expectations, this managed to surpass every expectation I had and is one of my favourite films of the year.
The film follows the March sisters (Jo, Meg, Amy and Beth) in 1860s Concord, Massachusetts, in the period following the American Civil War. Whilst their father is away as a preacher, the sisters are raised by their mother, Marmee, albeit in some financial hardship, although they get some help from their rich Aunt March. The film shows the women growing up, coming to terms with the role of women in the world, finding love and embracing or hiding their gifts as society dictates. What Gerwig does brilliantly is create a dual timeframe, edited concurrently, with scenes showing the March sisters living together as they grow up, inter-cut with scenes where the sisters are separated, coming together for the first time in years following a family tragedy. There’s no sense of confusion with the time skips and the way Gerwig scripts each of these scenes allows for a strong thematic depth to be present all the way through. The film shows the difficulty women face, showing how reliant women in the status of the March sisters are on marriage as an economic tool rather than marrying based on love. We also see the difficulty the sisters have in expressing their talents due to the reality of needing money for food and board, with Jo’s writing, Meg’s acting, Amy’s painting and Beth’s music having a powerful emotional resonance with the sisters and those around them, but showing the difficulty faced in wanting to pursue these passions, from economic reality making these dreams unfeasible, to having to cater art to masses, weakening the personal nature of the art in the process.
There’s also, what seemed to me anyway, to be a bit of a critique of the environment that produced the original book through a sub-plot of Jo getting her writing published. Having looked into the publishing of the original book, there are deliberate similarities and Gerwig highlights how, in a male dominated society, stories like Little Women do not get the recognition they deserve by men who just don’t get it. This is a theme that is still of relevance to this day, as exemplified by the lack of awards recognition for this film at the Golden Globes and SAG Awards, despite the overwhelming critical praise. This is part of the wider success Gerwig has in making a story from 1868 incredibly modern. She doesn’t change the setting to do this, what she does is laser focus on the themes of the story through her script and this, combined with the filmmaking skill Gerwig has, brings a vibrancy to the film. Gerwig also does a great job with the emotional scenes, knowing when to allow dialogue to work and when to let the skill of the actors play the emotions.
The performances are uniformly excellent as well. In a way, it feels kind of unfair to single certain people out because of how well Gerwig has balanced out the characters, playing to the ensemble nature of the film. Whilst Jo March is the most obvious lead character of the film, and Saoirse Ronan does a great job playing her, showing off her love for her sisters and her intelligence in writing, with her nature towards the way women are treated in society coming across brilliantly, she does not overwhelm the film. As the other March sisters, Emma Watson as Meg brings a lot of charm to the character, showing her loving nature and how she is more, quote-unquote traditional compared to the other March sisters, Florence Pugh (who’s had an amazing year between this, Midsommar and Fighting With My Family) is great as Amy, showing the contradictory nature of the character and how she changes over the course of the film, along with her own feelings of inadequacy well and Eliza Scanlen as Beth has this quiet nature which fits the character perfectly. Ronan, Watson, Pugh and Scanlen aslo have amazing chemistry with each other, allowing you to fully invest in them as sisters, everything about all their scenes together feeling incredibly natural.
For the rest of the cast, Timothee Chalamet is excellent as Laurie, the chemistry he has with Ronan is electric and he plays the charming and arrogant nature of the character brilliantly. Laura Dern as Marmee has this quiet resilience in her performance, showing her own feelings of anger and pain and how she hides them effectively and a sense of compassion for others. Chris Cooper as Mr Laurence has a very powerful scene midway through the film told without dialogue and his scenes with Scanlen have a quiet beauty to them. Meryl Streep as Aunt March is a great counterpoint to Ronan and Pugh and there are great scenes with Bob Odenkirk, James Norton and Louis Garrel.
On a technical level, the film is impressive. Greta Gerwig’s direction, Yorick Le Saul’s cinematography and Nick Huoy’s editing are all great, giving this classic feel to the film, with there being good use of lateral movement and colour grading to show the changes in the time periods and character moods. The production design and costume design get the feel of this area of America in the 1800s and there is a great contrast between the scenes set in Concord and the scenes set in New York and Paris, allowing there to be no sense of confusion throughout the film and it also does great work showing character development, especially with the dresses Amy wears throughout the film. Alexandre Desplat’s music meanwhile has a beauty to it that helps to elevate the emotional highs of the film, adding to the overall power the film has.
Overall, Little Women is an excellent film. What Greta Gerwig has done here is bring a modern style and feel to this story, without losing a sense of charm and highlighting the feminist themes of the story, aided by incredible performances, showing the talent Gerwig has with ensemble casts and crafting incredible dialogue. This is a great way to get introduced to this story, like I did, and is one of the best films of the year.
My Rating: 5/5