Written by Tom Button
Little Women is written and directed by Greta Gerwig and stars Saoirse Ronan, Emma Watson, Florence Pugh, and Eliza Scanlen. Gerwig’s story is based on the classic novel by Louisa May Alcott.
This tale of love and friendship takes place as the Civil War ravages America, and the devastation it leaves after. It focuses on the four fiery and strong March sisters as they traverse their small Massachusetts town in search of something more than just a suitable match. With their father away at war, Jo (Ronan), Meg (Watson), Amy (Pugh), and Beth (Scanlen) grow up in a close-knit family, with their mother (Laura Dern) looking after them and fostering their talents. Jo wants to become a writer, Amy a painter, and Beth a musician. However, as they grow into womanhood, bonds are broken and slowly re-forged with tensions running high when their rich Aunt March (Meryl Streep) wants each of them to marry the appropriate suitors, aggravating Jo and the others.
Ronan as Jo is sweet and kind, a very different role from her last work with Gerwig, Lady Bird, as the period setting demands something different in both manner and speech. She almost carries the film on her shoulders with the deep and complicated role of Jo, showing off her range as an actress. Hers is the character I related to the most, not because of her billing, but Ronan’s ability to showcase a different side to the character which I have never seen before. I could see that, whatever situation troubles her, she would do absolutely anything for her sisters- that is the best thing about this performance. The character’s love and affection for her family are infectious and reminded me a little of my relationship with mine. Ronan is very poignant and elevates what I thought would be just another period adaptation.
Watson’s Meg is a little harder to define, as she is the more typical character archetype for these stories. Meg is different from Jo in almost every way, yet still has that sweetness about her. She doesn’t disappoint in the film’s more emotional moments, crafting a more mature sensibility for the film. And although Watson’s accent does wander a bit during the film, she is a great physical performer, dancing and chewing the scenery in some of the funnier parts.
Pugh’s Amy is certainly the more emotionally subdued of the sisters; she is upstanding and takes her work as a painter very seriously. Her interactions with her co-stars are more fractious here. Still, she also shows a love for them that is the strongest of them all- a violent fight breaks, leaving Amy saddened and remorseful- a very emotional and incredibly powerful moment. When she grows up, Amy is closed off from anyone and everyone, and Pugh’s sternness is felt. Though she does have some more funny moments, particularly with family-friend Laurie Laurence (Timothée Chalamet), whose bright and kind demeanour challenges her in unexpected ways.
Scanlen, as the musical Beth, is the youngest of the March sisters and does not go unnoticed. Every sister feels a need to protect her, but Beth shows strength in her own right. Her kindness feels real and genuine, and when tragedy strikes, she plays a vital role in strengthening the family’s bond tenfold.
Gerwig’s writing and direction turn what could have been another bland period adaptation into a new and exciting rendition of the novel. Her choice of set design is accurate and lush, pulling the audience more and more into its setting. Her recognisable shot composition, also notable in Lady Bird, makes 19th Century America look stunning- the strange, off-kilter shots a staple of Gerwig’s directing. Snowy towns are contrasted against the beautiful countryside. The dialogue is not only plainly serious but also quite humorous at times, helping the actors’ lines flow more freely. It also got a chuckle out of me, which was a nice surprise.
What works here really works, but it suffers from the tiresome run time. At two hours and fifteen minutes, the film lingers on scenes for longer than necessary, especially after its pivotal moments. It can get a bit boring at times but soon picks up again after a slight slump. What Gerwig and company have created here is something rarely seen in period dramas today. Her direction is smart, and her dialogue is witty, something which other heritage adaptations miss.
Despite its length, Little Women is probably the best period film I’ve seen in a while. The performances are mostly top-notch, and the writing is whip-smart and funny. It takes a lot to adapt Alcott’s work to the screen and, after eight attempts, finally there is a version which anyone can enjoy. Its achievements in acting, writing, and cinematography are fresh today and will be remembered fondly by those experiencing the story for the first time. This is the most recently relatable period drama film – both for most audiences and even the most stoic of moviegoers.
Ronan, Watson, Pugh, and Scanlen do a great job as the March sisters in a sweet portrayal of a family in all its dysfunctional glory, and Gerwig’s efforts certainly pay off. From Frances Ha to Little Women, she has proved herself to be a new and integral voice in cinema. Bravo, Greta.