The blindly infectious joy that you feel at the beginning of ‘Little Women’ is rivalled only by the heart-wrenching grief you experience at the end — but hope is never lost in Greta Gerwig’s superb remake of Louisa May Alcott’s enduring 19th century novel.
This is only Gerwig’s second solo directorial feature — the first being the acclaimed indie flick ‘Lady Bird’, a somewhat more sparse and stripped back coming-of-age film that also starred Saoirse Ronan and Timothee Chalamet. (Frankly, we wouldn’t mind if the two actors formed an alliance with Gerwig for all future films.)
Gerwig returns fully equipped with her penchant for humour, heartache and biting dialogue, delivering an absolute dream of a period drama that is brimming with delight, anguish and half a dozen characters who will make you wish you were on the other side of the screen.
Yet, for all its abundance, ‘Little Women’ never feels overstuffed.
At the heart of it all is the intertwined stories of the four March sisters.
Meg, Jo, Amy and Beth — in order of age — live by humble means with their mother Marmee as their father fights in the Civil War. The sisters tussle, play-fight and put on theatrical plays at home, all the while talking over each other — it’s a technique reminiscent of ‘Lady Bird’, and while you might miss some dialogue in the commotion, it goes a long way to portray a realistic family dynamic.
Each sister wants something different: Meg to marry, Jo to publish her writing, Amy to be a painter, Beth to be content. Their suitors are John (poor but smart), Laurie (rich but listless) and Friedrich (handsome yet blunt).
A brilliant ensemble cast elevates each role, but lead actress Ronan as Jo — the glue holding them all together — is particularly exquisite.
She embodies Jo’s bravado, soft heart and stubborn insistence on not being placed inside a box, as well as the loneliness that comes from resisting the status quo. In a patriarchal society that refuses to acknowledge it: she is a writer first, a woman second.
Meanwhile, as Laurie — Jo’s foolish, love-struck best friend — Chalamet plays off Ronan’s restless energy without pause. He perfects the torment of an unrequited lover, down to the strain in his neck when he begs to be loved back. And as he and Jo frolic and squabble, it’s clear that their bond is built upon an implicit acceptance of — and admiration for — one another’s unconventionalities.
Rising actress Florence Pugh gives another standout performance as second-youngest sister Amy, who doesn’t belong — not to Jo and Meg’s close alliance nor to Beth’s quiet solitude. She’s forever on the outside of things, and it’s a gift to watch how she channels this frustration into an ambition to become the best painter she can be. (Particularly important is the scene where she says women have little chance of financial independence, forcing them to marry for money, not love.)
Laura Dern as nurturing Marmee, Meryl Streep as wealthy grump Aunt March and Eliza Scanlen as the selfless Beth are all excellent choices. But a couple of characters do suffer from lack of depth.
Louis Gharrel’s Friedrich feels so much like a tertiary character that it’s difficult to squeeze any emotional payoff out of his (arguably quite important) storyline. And the baby-faced Emma Watson isn’t a convincing choice as oldest sister Meg, as her passion for acting is reduced to a couple of throwaway lines delivered by Jo. (This is likely out of necessity rather than oversight: in a film two hours long, some narratives must be sacrificed.)
As both writer and director, Gerwig has her pacing down to an art. In the jubilant first half, she sets up scenes using frenetic movement then slows them down into sentimental snapshots. When seriousness sets in, a sunny warm palette indicates hope and cool blue hues signal the loss of it. The film flashes between past and present and Gerwig does a seamless job of giving each equal meaning and weight, reminding us that one could not exist without the other.
Of course, there’s no shortage of ‘Little Women’ adaptations you can choose from. The timeless book has been made into a movie on seven occasions, dating back to the first silent film in 1917. But through this latest incarnation, the Oscar-worthy Gerwig and her stellar cast have given us a version that we’re in no hurry to let go of.
Don’t miss it!
‘Little Women’ releases in the UAE on January 30. Watch the trailer below: