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Little Women

****
2019

‘…Gerwig plays down the potential for sentiment, while retaining the caustic wit of her script work on Lady Bird and Frances Ha; these Little Women feel like real people, with Ronan’s sparring with Pugh a particular highlight…’

Greta Gerwig is a talented woman in a field where women are rarely listened to or valued, but she’s earned her place at the front rank of Hollywood creatives. Louisa May Alcott’s venerable property is one which Sony had been keen to develop for a while, and with Gerwig as writer/director, the resulting rich slice of period drama turned out to be something of a triumph for all concerned. For Gerwig, it proved beyond any doubt that her directorial debut, Lady Bird, was no fluke; for Amy Pascal and Sony, it offered a strong return on their faith in a fresh and radical female director, handling a big-name cast and a lush studio production. And for audiences, it was a chance to return to a classic, often filmed text, and find something new and exciting through the eyes of a genuine auteur.

The bildungsroman is an ideal target for a 2019 do-over; today’s youth chronicle their coming of age in lugubrious detail via the socials, so it’s something of a breath of fresh air to find Alcott’s character brought to life with such brief but incisive strokes. Gerwig puts Jo (Saoirse Ronan) and her development centre-stage, opening with the author nervously awaiting the opinion of a publisher of her early work. His understanding, that a story about a woman must end with her either married, or dead, is one that Jo wants to question, but she’s also savvy and prepared to negotiate, on art, on commerce, on all terms. The question is, how did she get so smart?

From here, the narrative fractures, as we travel back seven years to see the formative experiences which have inspired Jo’s work, namely her sisters Margaret (Emma Watson), Amy (Florence Pugh) and Elizabeth (Eliza Scanlen), and also remain in the present to get acquainted with how things work out for the sisters. There is an eccentric aunt (Meryl Streep, giving it some Maggie Smith in the dowager stakes), and a handsome suitor Laurie (the more-than-personable Timothy Chalamet), while the stern but loving hand of mother Marmee (Laura Dern) is there to steady the ship when the girls’ youthful enthusiasm threatens to put things out of kilter. The way the narrative jumps backwards and forwards in time may dissuade those have come just for the classic text and chocolate-box visuals, but it revitalises the narrative in a satisfying way, and makes familiar events more surprising as they play out. As a director, Gerwig plays down the potential for sentiment, while retaining the caustic wit of her script work on Lady Bird and Frances Ha; these Little Women feel like real people, with Ronan’s sparring with Pugh a particular highlight.

Little Women is a delight, a period film that feels relevant, a woman’s picture that should have a universal appeal. It’s easy to cheer Jo as she rises above her difficulties, and Gerwig is always firmly plugged into her heroine’s psyche. The ending, while clever, is unashamedly romantic; Gerwig’s sumptuous film shows a modern audience that feminism and romance can fit together nicely.

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    • That’s not a question I’ve ever considered until 24 hours ago. It seems remarkable that somehow it’s cheaper not to show Batgirl at all than just flog it off, but they seem final about it. I was mildly inconvenienced by that shoot, and now it seems that my sacrifice was for nothing.

        • I don’t think that is something I could have affected. Would Warners write off $70 million just due to shame at my slightly-longer-than-expected walk to work? I’ve not found the world to work like that at all.

  1. I was impressed with this version, as I adored the 1994 Winona Ryder take. When you watch the movie, you can sense director Gerwig in dialogue with writer Alcott, especially in that ending which splits the difference between uplifting romance and grounded feminism. I wish Gerwig had cast more American actors since some of the accents among the sisters are a bit wobbly. But that production design is stunning, very tactile, and lived in. I”m so relieved that you gave this a positive review.

    • Good call! Yup, that should be a great compare and contrast, but if anyone can do it, she can!

  2. I am commenting before I read this with great trepidation….this is one of my favorite films ever made so if you trash it, it could do permanent damage to our relationship……..I’ll be back after reading…….

    • Rest assured, dear reader, I would never think to trash anything with Greta Gerwig involved; I have no criticism of this film! Fortunately Gerwig doesn’t sleep off her cocaine hangover while someone else directs the truck smashes and fist-fights. I did feel we needed a proper film after a few self-indulgent reviews from me…

      • Whew! I have read your review and agree with every word. This was the last film I saw in the theater before the pandemic hit. There was a moment there where I thought it might be the last film I ever saw in the theater, and if so, a fitting send-off. I could wax poetic about how I wanted to be Jo when I was a kid (as did every tomboy with literary aspirations) and how I loved that the film plays with the ending of the novel – it was never right that Jo married that stuffy old guy, and it was only as an adult that I appreciate how Alcott was winking at us. It’s a film that somehow manages the impossible task of bringing something new to a story that’s been done to death without making it too woke for its times, or ruining the essential message and tone. Well done Gerwig, and well done you! 😉

        • Is the correct answer! I wanted to tidy up the review, which was written quickly to take advantage of Sony’s expiring embrago, and toned it down a bit. But I’m still in awe of Gerwig, and this is a great adaptation that revitalises a beloved text: what’s not to like?

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