Little Women Review
Just in time for Christmas, Louisa May Alcott’s much-loved Little Women has been brought back to life by director Greta Gerwig (Lady Bird) in this charming new adaptation of the beloved novel.
For those unfamiliar with the tale, Little Women is set in Massachusetts during the 19th century and follows the lives of the four March sisters. Living in genteel poverty with their mother (known as ‘Marmee’ and here played by Laura Dern), we meet Meg (Emma Watson), the eldest, who tries to lead a good example for her younger sisters but often lets her desire for riches and pretty things get the better of her. Jo (Saoirse Ronan) the gutsy, determined writer who is adamant that loving and being loved isn’t the only thing women should strive for, Beth (Eliza Scanlen), the shy and often sickly sister who only hopes for peace, and the youngest sister, Amy (Florence Pugh), who can be petulant and stubborn, but does her best to be good and hopes to become a successful artist. Exploring the highs and lows of growing up and the struggles faced by women in the 19th century to live a life which is not solely defined by marriage, Greta Gerwig’s Little Women manages to maintain the key elements of the original story, while making it relevant for a modern audience.
The most significant change Gerwig has made to the story, is the structure in which it is told. In Louisa May Alcott’s 1868 novel, the tale is told in two parts; the first follows the March girls as teenagers for one year whilst their father (Bob Odenkirk) is away working as a pastor during the American Civil War, while the second focusses on the women as adults and the individual paths they have taken in their lives. However, instead of following a linear structure, Greta Gerwig intertwined both parts so we meet Jo as an adult at the very beginning of the film. Attempting to sell some of her stories to a publisher in New York, we are introduced to Jo as a young, ambitious writer trying to make her way in the world as an independent woman in 19th century America. This change in structure works well, as it allows the audience to connect with a tenacious Jo as an adult, determined to pursue a serious career as a writer, before going back in time to discover the birth of Jo’s goals and how her early life defined who she became as an adult.
Viewers are welcomed into the March’s cosy family home and reintroduced to Jo as a young, wild, dream-fuelled girl who aspires to be a successful writer and winces at the thought of marriage as a means of womanly survival. Jo writes plays and her sisters are usually willing to partake in performances of their sister's work. In the meantime, the March’s neighbour Laurie (Timothée Chalamet) arrives - the grandson of the wealthy Mr. Lawrence (Chris Cooper) from next door. Laurie soon becomes a dear friend of the family and takes a particular interest in Jo, but still neglecting the idea of love and marriage, Jo cherishes Laurie but only as a close friend. Meg on the other hand has taken an interest in Laurie’s tutor, John Brooke (James Norton), and toys with the idea of marriage, despite her family’s objections.
Shy Beth takes refuge from the bustling household by playing her piano and quietly tending to her dolls, while Amy, keen to keep up with her older sisters, often gets herself into mischief but her ambitions to do well in life spark the interest of the family’s wealthy Aunt March (Meryl Streep), who soon takes Amy under her wing. As we learn about the lives of the March sisters during their adolescence, there are intervals where we are transported forward in time and learn of the positive changes, as well as the emotional turbulence and tragedy that occurs and how this in turn has affected Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy.
Despite the jumping timeline, the film flows coherently between the two different periods and thanks to the colour correction, it is usually fairly easy to tell which time period each sequence is a part of. Scenes taking place during the girls’ adolescence has a warm, light and almost glowing appearance - perhaps reflecting the innocence and happiness of childhood – while parts set later on in the March’s lives seem slightly darker. Thanks to this restructured version of events, the film manages to contain a significant number of the most memorable plot points contained in the book without dragging on for too long.
Every single cast member gives an excellent performance throughout the film. It was clear that the cast were engaged and energised by the script as they certainly put everything into their performances onscreen. Ronan, Pugh and Chalamet are particularly good in their respective portrayals of Jo, Beth and Laurie. They each gave raw, emotional performances while closely reflecting the characters in the book, and it is particularly interesting to witness these characters’ arcs progress from childhood to adulthood. However, despite the impressive individual performances, the cast gelled well as an ensemble and made the story all the more believable and enjoyable to watch. From the playful productions of Jo’s plays and the affectionate interactions between each other, to the bitter arguments and scenes of betrayal, the cast perfectly portrayed the relationships outlined in Louisa May Alcott’s novel and gave the characters a new lease of life.
Powerful performances and well-constructed screenplay aside, Little Women is accompanied by a delightful score composed by Alexandre Desplat (The Shape of Water). The music accompanies each scene perfectly as it heightens the joy of the happy, playful sequences and deepens the impact of the darker, more emotional moments. This fantastic score guides the audience through the story and increases the ability to really empathise with and relate to the characters onscreen.
The cinematography throughout the film, developed by Yorick Le Saux (High Life), also deserves high praise. From the playful dance sequences and shots of the lush countryside, to the more sombre intimate scenes between characters, the film is stunningly beautiful; especially in its wonderful set design. The incredible detail put into the March’s house are very impressive and reflect how it is described in the novel – a quirky, warm, welcoming family home.
After Lady Bird Little Women is only Greta Gerwig's second feature film. However by taking a well-known story, giving it a structural revamp and producing an emotionally sound, honest script, and securing a group of extremely talented actors, Gerwig has ensured that her take on the classic novel is entertaining, relatable and heart-warming. Despite the fact the story has been brought to the screen before, Gerwig's version packs a punch and is sure to delight fans of the book as well as those who are new to the story.