In 2014, Greta Gerwig was cast in How I Met Your Dad, a spin-off from the successful CBS sitcom How I Met Your Mother. For unknown reasons the pilot episode didn’t impress the executives at CBS, and the show wasn’t picked up for a season order. Fortunately for us this was a blessing in disguise, as Gerwig would go on to write and direct 2017’s wonderful Lady Bird. And now Gerwig has graced us with her follow up Little Women, an absolute delight of a picture that is one of the best films of the year.
Adapting Louisa May Alcott’s beloved novel, the film centres on the four March sisters – Jo, Amy, Meg and Beth – as they come of age during, and after, the American Civil War. This is, of course, not the first adaptation of the novel, with key versions from 1933 and 1994, yet Gerwig is more than up to the task at leaving her own mark on the story. Opting for a non-linear narrative structure, Gerwig and editor Nick Houy offer the story in a meditative act of remembrance, at once in dialogue with the characters’ past, and also with Alcott’s novel. The present is shot with a cool colour tone, while the memories and images of the past have a warm tone to them, reflecting on the wonderful time the March sisters had together. Gerwig’s craft is sharp and meticulous, knowing the exact moments to cut back and forth between time frames, building to a real emotional response.
This is, of course, not the first adaptation of the novel yet Gerwig is more than up to the task of leaving her own mark on the story
Much has been said of the fact that Little Women is a passion project of Greta Gerwig, and it is not at all difficult to see. Gerwig clearly loves the source material, and her adoration for Alcott’s novel shines through every single frame. And it appears that such an attitude must be contagious, as it spreads between each actor that appears on screen. The chemistry present between the March sisters is a revelation, and the joy these characters share just soaks through the screen – watching these characters interact is simply a pleasure. Filling shoes once worn by Katherine Hepburn and Winona Ryder, Saoirse Ronan lives up to the role, perhaps offering the finest iteration to date, continuing on her path to be the best of her generation. Emma Watson (surprisingly) and Laura Dern (unsurprisingly) deliver much appreciated charm, yet it is Florence Pugh who is the stand out here. Ever since her appearance in the fantastic Lady Macbeth, her career trajectory has been that of highs and her work in Midsommar and Fighting With My Family has only confirmed this, yet here may lie her best performance. Portraying the same character at two distinct times of her life, Pugh believably delivers both a young teenager and a young woman. Transitioning between her character of Amy, who changes the most as a character between time frames, she perfectly portrays her as immature and then full of maturity. Pugh manages to supply the film with many of its comedic moments and its more serious beats. It’s an impressive dual performance, and combined with Gerwig’s structural approach, offers a staggering look at growing up.
As per usual, the conversation must venture to discuss Timothée Chalamet. An actor more than aware of his position as every film-fan’s favourite boyfriend, Chalamet here embraces such a role and yet doesn’t allow it to define him. It’s a balancing act that he pulls off with ease, which is perhaps what makes him such an interesting and loveable actor. With Little Women, he is given more than enough opportunity to show off not only his emotional tendencies, but also his comedic chops, and sure enough the guy nails every funny line and every physical beat. Despite this, Chalamet knows that he is only a supporting player in the film, and never takes the spotlight away from the
March sisters. Supporting turns from Louis Garrel, Chris Cooper and Meryl Streep are also terrific, ensuring the ensemble on show is one for the ages.
The chemistry present between the March sisters is a revelation, and the joy these characters share just soaks through the screen
It is this act of maintaining focus on the March sisters that makes Little Women such a treat. We are fully aware of each sister’s personality, dreams and desires – Jo the talented aspiring writer, Amy the talented artist, Meg the actor and Beth the musician – in a way George Cukor’s 1933 version could only dream of. When they are all brought together, the moments of sisterhood are believable and delightful, yet Little Women ensures that we care about each one individually. It’s not an easy feat to achieve, and I am frankly in awe of Greta Gerwig and her cast in the way they managed it.
When adapting a beloved novel, one that happens to be a period drama, there is always a question of sentimental melodrama. It’s an issue that many people seem to have a problem with (for reasons unbeknownst to me) and Gerwig chooses to fully embrace the melodrama of the story, yet still manages to offer a distinctively modern adaptation. Ronan’s character of Jo, an aspiring writer, is very much the foundation of the telling of the narrative, and through this character Gerwig offers a dialogue between her film and Alcott’s novel. Bringing forth narrative and character decisions that may appear slightly dated in 2019, Gerwig decides not to tamper with or rewrite the text, as if to suggest that it didn’t exist, instead opening a discussion between the two texts. It’s an interesting approach that she pulls off, allowing for a modern take that still retains the timelessness of the tale. The fact that Gerwig evens plays such a choice for comedy makes it even moreadmirable.
Florence Pugh delivers an impressive dual performance and, combined with Gerwig’s structural approach, offers a staggering look at growing up
Reports that Gerwig took inspiration from Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate are not hard to see. If the rumours of getting her cast to watch the 1980 Civil War epic are true, it not only demonstrates Gerwig’s sense of humour – her comedic acting ability has not been lost as it has translated perfectly to her writing and directing sensibilities – but her key eye for the production design, with help from Jess Gonchor, offers a sense of time and place that is as strikingly detailed as anything in Cimino’s film.
Little Women is an absolute delight of a film that may just become the definitive version. Thanks to Gerwig’s sharp script and directorial eye, and a terrific ensemble, it is a warm blanket of a film, so infectiously joyous is its spirit that you can’t help but want to be wrapped up in it.