It takes a lot to bring a very old piece of literature to life. Yet many directors continue to try and bring the stories of Bronte sisters, Jane Austen and the like to new audiences every generation or so, some with middling success and others rejuvenate the text on the page. Fortunately for Louisa May Alcott’s famed story Little Women, in the hands of an actress-cum-director Greta Gerwig, retains the spirit of the story but also makes it feel fresh for new audiences.
In the years after the Civil War, Jo March (Saoirse Ronan) lives in New York and makes her living as a writer, while her sister Amy (Florence Pugh) studies painting in Paris. Amy has a chance encounter with Theodore (Timothee Chalamet), a childhood friend. Their oldest sibling, Meg (Emma Watson), is married to a schoolteacher, while shy sister Beth (Eliza Scanlen) develops an illness that brings the family together. With the help of the other women in their lives, their mother Marmee (Laura Dern) and their Aunt March (Meryl Streep), they navigate their environments and try to come into their own at a time where it wasn’t so easy.
Fortunately Gerwig isn’t overly protective of the source material and following it to a tee. Her own personal touches can be felt throughout. The way the story plays out, with it’s moving between timelines to draw connections between childhood memories and their results in adulthood, as well as how old feuds have affected new friendships, really highlights to the audience how these relationships have grown and changed over time. Gerwig underlines the female empowerment of its centre character Jo, and juxtaposes the creative boundaries that exist for her in the story (perhaps an allegory of Gerwig’s own battles in the industry herself). It is both one with the original source material, but goes one step further to bring to life the spirit of what Alcott wanted to explore – strong women and the familial relationship between them.
On the acting side, every performance is superb. Ronan brings passion to her portrayal of Jo and the audience is immediately drawn to her. Though at times her actions could have sidelined her from likeability, with Gerwig’s direction and Ronan’s acting, it is a mere quirk of her personality. She is wild and ambitious, rejecting the social norms of her time, making her so relatable to contemporary audiences. Pugh brings grace to Amy, avoiding the spoiled characterisations of previous outings. She is headstrong and the story also belong to her. Watson is a solid fixture in the story as Meg and Scanlen’s reserved Beth are equally as pertinent to the story. Chalamet again comes out at the romantic and charming Teddy, solidifying him as a contemporary heartthrob with sensitivity but brazen personality. I see this as his Colin Firth in Pride and Prejudice (1995) moment. In the supports, Dern is the mother you’ve always wanted, understanding and calm, despite battling her own problems and Streep is the comical grandmother whose sharpness and old-fashioned values are reminiscent of the Dowager Countess of Graham Violet Crawley.
The script is excited and full of energy. The dialogue sounds true to form, but its delivery is excellent, evoking Gilmore Girls via Jane Austen. Costuming and art direction are both magnificent, drawing us into the period and adding an extension to the women’s personalities as well. The March house is a kaleidoscopic mess of bits and bobs, most of which the girls play with and entertainment each other with, but mainly it evokes warmth and glows as much as the characters. It’s the heart of the family unit and grounds the characters presence in the story.
It’s a beautiful film, it feels like a hug from a grandparent who has told stories to you throughout the years. There’s joy and pleasure to be had, coupled with strong emotions of losing one so close to you, but ultimately it’s the beautiful story of women, all types and personalities, their relationships, the bonds of love with mothers and fathers, creative ambition and battling the odds for something you believe in. The ending is true to the story, but subverted so that Jo’s creation is one of her many pride and joys, and remind us of the love of family and of how we grow to be who we are. To bastardize a quote from the HBO TV show Girls, “A friendship between sisters is grander and more dramatic than any romance.” And that’s never been truer than here.
Beautifully acted and expertly direction adaptation is the perfect modernisation of a classic story that we don’t deserve, but need. It’s heartfelt and uplifting. Perfect in so many ways.
Let Gerwig direct the sequels to the original, Little Men and Jo’s Boys. Or just give her a damn Oscar nomination!
Originally published on Back Row, 29 November, 2019.