Louisa May Alcott‘s classic novel Little Women has been a popular tale to tell on the big and small screens, adapted numerous times already ahead of the news that Oscar-nominated writer, director and actress Greta Gerwig was to give it a shot.
The March sisters – Meg (Emma Watson), Jo (Saoirse Ronan), Beth (Eliza Scanlen) and Amy (Florence Pugh) – each as alike as they are different. Growing up in middle America during the Civil War, the sisters want for a lot but their mother (affectionately known as Marmee, played by Laura Dern) keeps them in check, alongside cold Aunt March (the brilliant Meryl Streep) who urges them to seek wealthy husbands to avoid the lowly life of her sister-in-law.
With their father away at war, the girls are left to support each other and look after the house, through paid work and other duties, but nearly always seem to be distracted by something else – namely, boys. One particular boy catches everyone’s attention; their neighbour Laurie, played by Timothée Chalamet. Laurie is soon welcomed into the group and becomes a sort-of older brother to the four but takes a particular likening to Jo, the wildest and most adventurous of them. If they’re not all tumbling about the house causing havoc, Jo and Laurie are off ice-skating, trekking the countryside or coming up with some other fantastical plan.
Without spoiling the story, all we’ll say is that time passes and the sisters soon part ways, with Jo off to New York to pursue her lifelong passion of becoming an author. Amy travels with Aunt March to Europe, to study painting and to spread her wings – in her aunt’s words, Amy is the family’s last hope in finding a partner with a lot of money. But, as is the way with life, the March sisters can’t avoid sadness forever and they’re reunited back at home to reminisce together over how much has changed – and how much has stayed the same.
Unlike the book, written by Alcott in 1868 and inspired by her own family, Gerwig’s Little Women doesn’t follow a chronological narrative. We first see the girls as young adults, finding their own ways in the world, only to be thrown back to their teenage years and their first meeting with Laurie. As someone who’s familiar with the story (and is currently reading the novel), this modernisation of the narrative first takes you by surprise and then makes total sense. Gerwig matches past life events with what’s happening in the present day and switches between the two timelines, to show us how the characters’ lives have moved on, to build on the feelings we have for each of the girls. And as the climax of the story approaches, we soon realise what’s going to happen and that Greta has strapped us in on an emotional rollercoaster we can’t get off of (I cried three times).
Being a story as beloved as Little Women is, with as much of an emotional punch as it has, it can’t star just any old cast. Ronan, who previously collaborated with Gerwig and Chalamet for the Academy Award-nominated Lady Bird, is Jo through and through. ‘Boy-ish’ in her ways, she titles herself as the man of the house, looking over and after her sisters and mother. She’s headstrong and determined, a true literary heroine for girls past and present who don’t want to conform to society’s standards of love and marriage. Watson as Meg, the prim and proper eldest sister, is again spot-on casting; much like Emma’s alter-ego Hermione in the Harry Potter series, Meg is able to shoot down the other girls (especially Jo) with one arch of an eyebrow. And Scanlen as Beth – reserved, meek, humble, she’s the right balance to contrast her sisters’ sometimes unruly, outspoken ways. Supported by Streep, Dern, Chris Cooper, James Norton, Bob Odenkirk and Louis Garrel, the cast handle the story, adapted by Gerwig, delicately and sensitively, and embody their characters all the way.
For me, the true star of the four is Pugh as Amy, the bratty youngest sister. As a child (I believe Amy’s around 12 or 13 at the start of the narrative story), she’s loud, outspoken and quick to anger. Despite being everything a young lady shouldn’t be, she has big dreams – to become a famous painter. Skipping forward in time, we see her in France living her dream but as a young woman she realises how naive those dreams were. In her own passionate words, she wants to be the best or there’s no point, knowing full well that she’s competing against ‘the best’ – male artists, where there’s no room for women. We see the largest amount of emotional growth in Amy, making us sympathise with her, cheerlead for her, cry with her. How Pugh – who led in both Fighting with My Family and Midsommar this year – hasn’t been nominated for an Academy Award yet, I don’t know.
While Lady Bird may be considered Greta’s jumping off point as a new director, Little Women truly shows what an eye she has for cinema. Landing in the deep end handling an American classic taught in school around the world (and has been adapted for the silver screen seven times previously), she transforms the story into something exciting and inviting through the cinematography. The March household is full of shades of orange and yellow, giving each shot within it a glow so warm you want to step into the scene. Add to this the Christmas trees, breakfast set-ups, dance sequences, flower arrangements, beautiful costuming and a soundtrack by Alexandre Desplat, the viewing experience is immersive – you’ll come away feeling like you’ve been hugged for 135 minutes.
Whether you’re familiar with the story already or are new to the March sisters, Gerwig’s Little Women takes a narrative full of modern themes – both in the late 1800s and now – and pumps it full of life and love. It would be a fantastic introduction to anyone yet to be acquainted with Jo, Meg, Beth and Amy.