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ARTS & ENTERTAINMENT

Little Women

The classic American novel gets a sharp, savvy and soulful new adaptation, with Greta Gerwig at the helm and Saoirse Ronan leading the cast.
By Sarah Ward
January 06, 2020
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Little Women

The classic American novel gets a sharp, savvy and soulful new adaptation, with Greta Gerwig at the helm and Saoirse Ronan leading the cast.
By Sarah Ward
January 06, 2020
  shares

Greta Gerwig doesn't appear in Little Women, but she's as much an on-screen presence as her stellar cast. Two features into her career as a solo filmmaker, the actor-turned-writer/director has established a clear authorial voice, with both Lady Bird's titular teen and Little Women's Jo March feeling like extensions of Gerwig herself. They're characters she could've and would've played had either movie transpired a few years earlier. Dynamic young women eager to leave their imprint upon the world — and refusing to simply accept the niche that others have earmarked for them, too — they're clear kindred spirits to Frances Ha's eponymous New Yorker. Brought to life by Saoirse Ronan, they're also fiercely determined to do what many of Gerwig's own on-screen characters have: battle for the lives that they want, no matter how difficult that proves.

If Lady Bird filtered the above idea through Gerwig's own adolescence in a loosely autobiographical manner, then Little Women locates it in what must be one of her favourite books. Notions of forging one's identity, finding independence and fighting societal conventions already exist in Louisa May Alcott's 1868 novel; however Gerwig's adaptation thrusts them to the fore — not just because a modern remake should, but because they're the Civil War-era story's beating heart. Accordingly, this version of Little Women opens with the indefatigable Jo (Ronan) selling one of her tales to a New York publisher (Tracy Letts), and shows her confidently holding her own in negotiations over what's expected of her female characters. She needs to make the sale to send money home to Massachusetts, but she's never willing to compromise just because she's told to.

Tinkering with the flow of Alcott's classic, Gerwig's decision to start Little Women here is inspired. It conveys the crux of Jo's journey in a concise, witty, lively back-and-forth — because, both before and after this point in the overall narrative, she keeps experiencing this tussle in various forms. Via flashbacks, viewers piece together the whole story. Her mother Marmee (Laura Dern) doesn't push Jo along any specific path, and her sisters Meg (Emma Watson), Amy (Florence Pugh) and Beth (Eliza Scanlen) are accustomed to her headstrong ways, but Aunt March (Meryl Streep) has decisive views. With their father (Bob Odenkirk) away at war, the stern matriarch decrees that Jo must marry into money to secure the family's economic standing. Even given her close friendship with the wealthy, besotted Laurie (Timothée Chalamet) — literally the boy next door — Jo steadfastly rejects the prospect that her future is for sale.

Gerwig's structural approach has another pivotal impact: it turns this into a tale of women, not girls. The audience first meets the March sisters as adults with precise personalities, and so the film prioritises who they are, not who they once were. This remains a coming-of-age story, but it's savvily reframed to focus on the women that emerge from games, squabbles, crushes, rivalries and stage shows in the attic, rather than on young ladies working out what they want. That might seem a tiny shift, but it makes a vast difference. From the outset, it accepts and foregrounds Jo's unwavering resolve, Meg's desire for a traditional family life of her own, and Amy's pragmatism about the financial realities of being female, instead of making these traits the punctuation that concludes their arcs.

All of the above mightn't work so well if Little Women wasn't so superbly cast — especially Ronan as Gerwig's returning on-screen surrogate and Pugh as the thorniest of the siblings. If Gerwig can't play Jo, then no one else but Ronan could've, tapping into the character's intensity and the fact that she's well aware of the cost of her choices. As Amy, Pugh turns in her third excellent performance of the past year (after Fighting with My Family and Midsommar), giving depth and texture to a character who has often been treated as petulant elsewhere. They're surrounded by a wealth of other talent, of course, with Dern and Chalamet each keeping their internet darling status intact with aplomb.

Gerwig works wonders with her script and her actors — tasks that might seem easy, but still bear her fingerprints — however she also directs a visually sumptuous film. Little Women sparkles with warmth and charm, not only when dresses catch alight and catastrophic haircuts inspire laughs, but across tender and heartbreaking moments. Cosiness and melancholy aren't mutually exclusive here, and nor are honeyed hues, imagery that resembles vivid period portraits, and a lived-in look and feel. Her trick to adapting Alcott's text for a new era — adding another version to a pile that already includes seven prior big-screen interpretations, including 1994's well-received take with Winona Ryder — is to eschew the idea that something can't be simultaneously dutiful and radical. Gerwig doesn't just make that plain via Jo's story, but bakes it into every frame of this sharp and soulful film.

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