LITTLE WOMEN – Review
The beloved classic “Little Women” has been made into so many film and television versions that it seemed inconceivable that a new version could offer anything fresh beyond a new cast. Yet writer/director Greta Gerwig (LADY BIRD) was able to just that with her LITTLE WOMEN, offering a fresh take that still honors the original, and even giving it a contemporary feminist twist by picking up on and bring forward elements that were always there.
Without a doubt, Gerwig’s LITTLE WOMEN has a fabulous cast, with Saoirse Ronan as Jo, and Timothee Chalamet as neighbor Laurie. Emma Watson take the role of Meg, Florence Pugh has a breakout role as Amy and Eliza Scanlen plays Beth. Laura Dern plays the girls’ mother Marmee, and Meryl Streep plays Aunt March.
But it is more than the dream cast that sets this version apart. Rather than following the story chronologically like every other version, Greta Gerwig mixes it up, starting with a grown-up Jo trying to make it as a writer. The story of the girls growing up in rural New England are presented as a series of flashbacks, jumping back and forth in time, and returning periodically to the story’s “present” with Jo navigating the perils of publication. The story is so familiar that there is not chance of being confused about when and where you are.
That refreshing tack also allows the other sisters to emerge in their own right, instead on only being supporting players to Jo, although she is still clearly the main character. Gerwig brings out depth to the sisters, and even rounds out the characters of Marmee and Aunt March, letting this remarkable cast really explore the various sides of their character.
The settings, costumes and locations are of course delightful, and Gerwig’s decision to use Louisa May Alcott’s actual childhood home as one of the locations was a brilliant choice, adding to the film’s feeling of authenticity. Everything looks beautiful and period-perfect, apart from a slightly more disheveled Jo in the more formal settings than one would expect in the circa-Civil War era.
The focus is on the girls, which Gerwig uses to bring out feminist themes that are usually submerged in the storytelling, although they were always there. Gerwig even takes that another step by mixing the story of Jo with her creator Louisa May Alcott, underlining the autobiographical elements of the story. Repeatedly, Gerwig tweaks the way the story is told with still preserving the heart of the source material. For example, Jo’s professor friend Frederick is now played by a very attractive Louis Garrel, rather than making him seem so much lesser an option than the wealthy Laurie, helping balance the romance. One of the film’s moments of magic blurs the line between Jo and Louisa, with the writer negotiating with her publisher, played amusingly by Tracie Letts, in a a comic but feminist highlight where she argues about whether her main character needs to be married off.
Another magical scene has Jo and Laurie dancing on the porch outside the ball going on outside, with a wilder, more playful dance than they could get away with inside. The scene is entertaining but also makes a point about Jo’s outsider character.
Of course, this wonderful cast has a lot to do with the success of this delightful film. Saoirse Ronan is perfect as the independent, strong-willed, and slightly wild Jo. Emma Watson brings out a warmth in Meg that is sometimes missed and Eliza Scanlen taps into an other-worldliness beyond the usually-saintly Beth. The real surprises are Amy and Marmee. Florence Pugh brings out hidden layer in Amy, a character usually played as only silly, shallow and pretty, drawing out her artistic ambitions and her attempts to assert her individuality in the shadow of her brighter, lively older sister. The portrayal is striking enough to be a break-out for Florence Pugh, following up on her strong performance in MIDSOMMAR. The marvelous Laura Dern also brings out hidden layers in her role as Marmee, making her a fully-rounded character with her own flaws and fears, rather than just the perfect mother to her little women.
Gerwig’s script is another strength of the film. She blends Louisa May Alcott’s own story with her characters in a seamless and natural way. The male roles, even Timothee Chalamet’s as Laurie, are a bit more in the background as Gerwig focuses the story firmly on the women, little and otherwise. It is bold and bracing choice, that helps connect these beloved familiar characters with the present, in a pleasing and satisfying way.
While every fan has their favorite screen version of this story, Greta Gerwig’s excellent LITTLE WOMEN is a strong contender to top many lists. LITTLE WOMEN opens Wednesday, Dec. 25.
RATING: 4 out of 4 stars