Synopsis: The latest adaptation of the classic tale of the March sisters – ladylike Meg (Emma Watson), tomboy Jo (Saoirse Ronan), quiet Beth (Eliza Scanlen) and ambitious Amy (Florence Pugh) – as they struggle to find happiness and fulfilment in civil-war era Massachusetts, all the while supporting their saintly mother Marmee (Laura Dern) and pining for the rich boy-next-door Laurie (Timothée Chalamet)
1. Well isn’t this a treat! In my last review I spoke of how rare it was to encounter a genuinely singular vision in cinema, but Little Women might be something rarer still – a mainstream populist-prestige movie that aims to entertain the masses without talking down to them. This really is a dying breed, with cinema getting more and more polarised to hyper-indie or arthouse pictures to one side and big expensive CGI franchises on the other, with the occasional middlebrow Oscar-bait in the middle. With Little Women, Greta Gerwig proves that Lady Bird was no fluke, as she expands her canvas while still maintaining the same level of creative excellence over her palette. It is that most precious of gems – the great film that is for everybody.
2. Little Women has of course been adapted before, though I have never seen any of the previous adaptations (though I have read the novel). Gerwig’s key gambit for her version is to run both timelines (the first where the March sisters are teenagers and the second where they are young women) concurrently, cross-cutting back and forth between both of them as the film progresses. This is a bold stratagem, and one that I am happy to say works like gangbusters thanks to the stellar editing of Gerwig and editor Nick Houy, using match cuts and contrast cuts to thematically link both timelines together. Full credit must also go to the cinematography of Yorick La Saux for ensuring that the viewer can distinguish the timelines immediately, with the past filmed through a warm filter and the present through a cool filter. The costumes and make-up are also impeccable, conveying immediately the age and relative maturity of the characters in every shot.
3. Gerwig’s craftsmanship was plain to see in Lady Bird, and she has honed it to an even finer point in Little Women. The way Gerwig manages crowd scenes has a hint of Robert Altman to it, with overlapping dialogue and canny, motivated camera movements that capture the important actions taking place in a naturalistic way. Gerwig’s shot construction is also never short of superb in Little Women, and she has a knack for drawing the viewer’s eye to the exact place in the frame she wants it to go, without the need for cheap zooms or close-ups. This doesn’t mean that she cannot show off when she wants, such as with the medium shot of Beth playing the piano that tracks backward and eventually transforms into a close-up of Mr. Laurence’s (Chris Cooper) face as he listens to her playing. The bulk of Little Women, however, is largely made up of beautifully, artfully composed shots that never once draw attention to how beautiful and artful they are, which if anything, only serves to show just how bloody good Gerwig is at her job.
4. The cast is also stellar from top to bottom, led by Saoirse Ronan as Jo. Ronan is (I used to say ‘might be’, but this film has removed all doubts) the best young actress in Hollywood at the moment, and she takes a role that most actresses would kill for and makes it entirely her own. Jo March is deservedly a feminist icon, but Ronan and Gerwig wisely never make her a saint. Jo is a character that contains multitudes, able to be both infuriatingly arrogant in one moment and lovingly tender the next, and Ronan is more than up to the task of conveying all the shades of the character. She finds real pathos in Jo’s foibles and her inability to live up to her own proto-feminist ideals without ever losing the vivacious spark that so defines the character. Matching her in intensity and depth is Florence Pugh, who had a hell of a 2019. Pugh’s star is ascending rapidly, and this film is proof of why. Amy March is regularly derided as a shallow, spoilt brat, but Pugh and Gerwig deliver an empathetic take on the character that digs deep into her motivations for wanting to marry into money (including a spectacular monologue about the economic reality facing women in the 19th century) and plumbs the psychological question of what it is like to be a youngest child living under the shadow of a more gifted sibling. Plus, she also steals nearly every scene she is in thanks to her comedic timing. The final actor that impressed the most is Chalamet, who weaponises his insouciant charm to such an extent that I could hear the swoons from across the world. He also makes a fantastic partner to the aforementioned actresses, and has palpable chemistry with both in different ways – his scenes with Ronan practically sizzle off the screen while his scenes with Pugh have a slower, more controlled burn. The rest of the cast is a slight notch below, but are still uniformly superb. Laura Dern radiates warmth as Marmee, Emma Watson manages to make Meg more than just ‘the boring one’, Eliza Scanlen brings enough shading to make Beth more than just a tragic plot device, and the Meryl Streep, the grande dame of American cinema, is clearly having a blast as the acerbic Aunt March.
5. As impressive as her collaborators might be, this is still Gerwig’s movie from top to bottom. Watching and reading interviews with her has only solidified this notion as she reveals an almost encyclopaedic depth to her thought process, from costuming to writing to editing to blocking to working with her actors. And I promised myself I wouldn’t do this, but …
I cannot for the life of me understand how there are supposedly five better directors than Gerwig this year, particularly as one of them happens to be a man who barfed out something which lacks even a tenth of Little Women‘s resonance and subtlety. The Oscars have been trash for the longest time, but you would think that they could occasionally do the right thing and reward a person who actually made the thing closest to the platonic ideal of a mainstream prestige picture, but no, it had to be the Scorsese ripoff (extra irrelevant in a year when the real deal is nominated) and the guy who made the (sigh) one-shot film. Thanks Birdman, your horrendous influence lives on forever.
Above all, the thing that impresses me most is how effortless Little Women feels. The degree of difficulty on this project is insane, what with adapting a beloved text, putting a modern meta-feminist spin on its ending, giving equal(ish) weight to the arcs and inner lives of all its characters, juggling multiple timelines and romance plots, and creating a motion picture that somehow manages to appeal to the widest possible audience while feeling intensely personal and intimate. If there is one key to the film’s success, it would be its bottomless reserves of empathy for each and every character. This is a movie that understands that life is a struggle, but one that can be made bearable with the love and support of a community. It is a film that revels in the joy of creation and posits that the most empowering step for a woman is to own her own creative endeavours, to the extent that its most cathartic moment is not a marriage, but when Jo watches her book get printed. In that scene, Ronan appears to play three feminist heroines – the fictional Jo March, the historical Louisa May Alcott, and the supremely talented woman behind the camera. This film is a gift, and one that deserves to be shared with as many as possible. There is nothing little at all about Little Women.