Greta Gerwig’s (“Lady Bird”) new version of Louisa May Alcott’s beloved novel “Little Women” is an engaging and tender success. The latest adaptation is vividly and delicately produced, and it’s very faithful and equally modern in its accession of the novel. Gerwig gives the classic the kind of attention and visual style that is different from the TV versions and the blissful movie versions from 1933, 1949 and 1994. The new variation has splendid aesthetics, sweeping emotions, and a first-rate ensemble cast, led by the dynamic Saoirse Ronan, who at 25, continues to prove she is one of the greatest acting talents of our time.
Alcott wrote a very personal novel, and like all deeply personal tales, it’s based on social realism and other emotional truths about female empowerment, cultural norms, and inherit conformity that have remained in society for many generations, and the classic story is always worth revisiting. Over the decades, Alcott’s portrayal of Josephine “Jo” March and her sisters has been an inspiration of many other films. Indeed, “Little Women” is such a renowned and celebrated work that it comes to no bewilderment that the story remains relevant today.
With this big-screen adaptation, Gerwig and her colleagues’ main intent it making a fresh and inventive new perspective that consists of fresh social commentary, a clever flashback structure, and a meta spirit that still holds the original stories charm, wit, and emotional abundance, focusing on Jo’s independence and yearning for liberty and creativity. Gerwig never allows the material to get schmaltzy, yet her retelling shimmers with great empathy, deep characterizations and sharp whimsy along with many other conflicting tones that reside within a family.
By utilizing a clunky flashback structure that serves more of reflections to the story rather than a gimmicky device, the reflections examine Josephine “Jo” March (Ronan) reminiscing the events that led to her encounter with Theodore “Laurie” Laurence (Timothee Chalamet), his wealthy grandfather Mr. Laurence (Chris Cooper), and his instructor, John Brooke (James Norton)– an encounter that would change the circumstances and lives of Jo and her sisters.
The saga opens up with Jo March living in a boarding house in New York City during the aftermath of the Civil War. She is trying to support her struggling family back in Concord, Massachusetts by selling written stories to publisher Mr. Dashwood (Tracy Letts). With social and cultural norms, publishing stories by women is very uncommon. Jo’s independence becomes an economic burden due to her refusal of marriage while her older sister Meg (Emma Watson) and younger sisters Amy (Pugh) and Beth (Eliza Scanlen) attempt to discover their own talents and passions.
The film’s flashbacks take place in Concord during the Civil War, Jo writes her own journal entries, Meg aspires to be a stage actress, Amy yearns to be a painter, and Beth holds great talents with the piano. Their mother Marmee (Laura Dern) takes care of the family with the help of their housekeeper Hannah (Jayne Houdyshell), but sadly Marmee’s resources stretch thin after helping her community out. Jo also holds a bittersweet relationship to her Aunt March (Meryl Streep), as she routinely visits and reads to her as Aunt March continues to lecture Jo on the importance of finding love and getting married for status and economic reasons. Aunt March also keeps promising Jo that she will take Jo to her next trip in Europe–which becomes a broken promise.
During a night out dancing, Meg twists her ankle while dancing with Laurie. He ends up taking her back to the March household, where he encounters Jo, and they are instantly drawn to each other. Meanwhile, Amy builds a crush with Laurie that ends up generating tension and jealousy between her and Jo. This also leads the Marches to get acquainted with the Laurence family which leads to both families bonding together during the course of time.
Throughout the film, Gerwig cuts between the two times lines that can become a challenging burden for new viewers of the story that aren’t too acquainted with the source material. The structure also sometimes reveals too much of what will happen in the future. Yet, during the past times of the film it works well with the girls’ character arcs and depth. One of the films richest scenes involves Jo being criticized by a literature professor and critic Friedrich Bhaer (Louis Garrel), who surely acknowledges Jo’s great talents, yet believes it is lacking something personal. While the flashbacks may come off jarring and not always successful, it is commanding in just how ambitious and unique Gerwig has accomplished with her adaptation. The craftsmanship of the film is also visually arresting, as Gerwig and cinematographer Yorick Le Saux imbues stark atmosphere merged with darkness and light along with stunning landscape cinematography that echoes the aesthetics of Sofia Coppola’s “The Beguiled” and Terrence Davies “A Quiet Passion”.
What indeed works here are the performances and superb ensemble casting. Ronan and Chalamet are absolutely wonderful together in this just as they were in Gerwig’s 2017 directorial debut “Lady Bird”. Ronan brings great charm and warmth throughout, delivering one of her most compelling performances to date. Chalamet also delivers a natural and witty performance that starts off charming and shortly becomes complex and wounded. But it’s Florence Pugh that is the true stand-out here as the bratty Amy, Pugh truly elevates her character of Amy under Gerwig’s direction, that captures the characters’ self-absorbed sensibilities and selfishness that ends up being transcended with far more character depth and nuance than previous adaptations and interpretations.
All around Gerwig delivers an eloquent and layered film, full of absolute grace and grandeur. It merges personal truths relating to her own career as a film director that also echoes Alcott’s own story that remains a clear personal story to Alcott. “Little Women” becomes a deeply complex film about sisterhood, independence, individualism and unrequited love. It is a film about young women attempting to sort themselves out in a society that embrace women getting married and starting a family rather than pursuing their true passions and dreams. Gerwig’s film is an absolute delightful film filled with a lot of idealism about staying true to your passion and talents.