Current Issue #488

Film Review:
Little Women

Emma Watson, Florence Pugh, Saoirse Ronan and Eliza Scanlen in Little Women
Emma Watson, Florence Pugh, Saoirse Ronan and Eliza Scanlen in Little Women

Director Greta Gerwig’s follow-up to Lady Bird is a somewhat awkwardly-structured and deliberately contemporary-feeling update of Louisa May Alcott’s classic novel, saved from a few problems by a tremendous cast.

Gerwig’s third film as director and the eighth (or so) adaptation of Alcott’s semi-autobiographical 1868 tale, it’s certainly the version of this beloved story that departs the most from the source, and purists might shriek at what has been lost or trickily updated, despite this version’s many virtues.

Naturally the first person we see here is Jo(sephine) March, played (of course) by Gerwig’s Lady Bird star Saoirse Ronan. A part previously filled by Katharine Hepburn, June Allyson, Susan Dey, Winona Ryder and others, this proto-feminist figure is brought to life by Ronan as she teaches literature in New York and tries to sell stories to Boy’s-Club-type newspapers. We also meet her sisters: romantic Meg (Emma Watson in a part nearly played by Emma Stone) is happily married with kids; the sometimes-childish Amy (Florence Pugh, late of Fighting With My Family and Midsommar) is working at being an artist in Paris under the snooty eye of Aunt March (who else but Meryl Streep?); and the musically gifted Beth (Eliza Scanlen) is very ill but undaunted.

They’re quite a bunch, and although none of them is American (Ronan was born in The Bronx but lived for years in Dublin, Watson and Pugh are English, and Scanlen is Australian) it hardly matters, with Gerwig ensuring that their scenes together, as they chat, gossip, giggle, argue, dream and cuddle, have a pleasingly unforced feel about them. Yes, they could indeed be actual sisters.

The proceedings become messy when Jo is called home to New England after hearing that Beth’s condition is worsening, and she flashes back to happier times seven years beforehand and, thereafter, we keep bouncing between now and then in a narrative pattern that’s never been used previously in any telling of this story. Evidently Gerwig wants to compare and contrast the now and then with a non-chronological, even post-Tarantino edge (sorry about that!), but it does grow confusing and distracting, and might lead some audiences to wonder who exactly is doing what to whom – and when.

However, Gerwig’s cast are unbeatable, with the four stars matched by a surprisingly sweet Laura Dern as their mother Marmee, Chris Cooper as gruff but kind neighbour Mr Laurence, Timothée Chalamet (also from Lady Bird) as his tantrum-throwing, sub-emo adult grandson Theodore (or ‘Laurie’), and more.

They do get a bit lost in the jumpy storytelling, but with an ensemble like that you’ll definitely get over it.

Reviewer Rating

Little Women (G) is in cinemas from 1 January

DM Bradley

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