Directed by Greta Gerwig
Starring Saoirse Ronan, Florence Pugh, Timothée Chalamet
New York Times critic AO Scott once wrote that “filmmakers don’t owe literary works their reverence, just their intelligence.” But with her buoyant adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s 1868 classic Little Women, Greta Gerwig brings not only her formidable intelligence—she brings an abiding respect and deep love for her source material. That respect and love give her the expertise to dismantle and reassemble it into something vital, to tease out new aspects of a story that has been told many times and allow it to speak to a new generation.
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Gerwig’s iteration of Little Women opens with aspiring writer Jo March (Saoirse Ronan) entering the lion’s den that is publishing in post-Civil War New York. She is about to submit her stories to a receptive if slightly condescending publisher named Mr. Dashwood (Tracy Letts), and while he agrees to publish her, he gives her strict prescriptions on how to write: “If your lead character is a girl, make sure she is either married or dead by the end.” Myopic advice notwithstanding, this still counts as a triumph which has Jo running through the streets of the city in jubilation. For a writer like Jo, then, the question becomes: What to write about next?
The sight of Ronan running in all her loose-limbed dexterity, hiking up her skirts so she can fly over the cobbled sidewalks, is not the opening vision of Jo March we are used to. And it is a signal that this is not your usual Little Women adaptation.
Gerwig’s boldest innovation is structural: She opens with a grown-up Jo, then hopscotches backwards and forwards in time. The past portrays the March family back in Concord, Massachusetts, as wise matriarch Marmee (Laura Dern) struggles to raise a brood of four daughters while her husband (Bob Odenkirk) is away at the front lines. Cinematographer Yorick Le Saux has draped the past in warm hues and glowing fires to differentiate it from the present, which is garbed in blues and a cooler palette. In the present, the four sisters have been scattered to the winds: Jo is off teaching girls and trying to launch her writing career in the big city; eldest sister Meg (Emma Watson) is acclimating to life as mother to two young children and wife to a penniless tutor (James Norton); third child Beth (Eliza Scanlen) is bedridden at home, her heart weakened by a bout with scarlet fever; and youngest daughter Amy (Florence Pugh) is accompanying wealthy Aunt March (Meryl Streep) through Europe, trying to become a painter and a bride to a rich Englishman (Dash Barber).
The past is a more inviting world, not just because the memories are warm, but because Gerwig presents the March sisters as an appealing contradiction: They love one another, but they aren’t afraid to one-up each other—they wrestle on the rug with the ungainly abandon of boys, their sentences piling on top of each other in untidy stacks.
And they aren’t afraid to hate each other too, when it comes to that. This is most apparent in Jo’s relationship with the traditionally most hated sister, Amy. In Gerwig’s hands, Amy is more than a spoiled brat: Under the tutelage of Aunt March (whose patriarchal sentiments are delivered by Streep with a twinkle in her eye that tells us even she doesn’t believe her anti-feminist screeds), Amy becomes someone more attuned to the realities of the world and her prospects in it. And Pugh, with a frame petite where Ronan’s is lanky, with a voice husky where Ronan’s cadences are lilting, coaxes out another unseen facet to Amy’s relationship with Jo: These two sisters collide precisely because they are sisters in temperament—both enamored of a life in the arts, of ineffable ideals and goals just beyond their reach—and the fact that only one of them has the courage to reach for what she really wants makes the other resentful and envious.
The big folly here is that Jo and Amy’s conflict—their love-hate relationship now a hefty component of this retelling—is seriously misplaced; their animus should be directed at a society that pressures women into choosing financial security over emotional fulfillment. And that’s where Timothée Chalamet’s Theodore Laurence gains his unexpected heft. Chalamet is every inch the puppy-dog Laurie who is devoted to the March sisters, but he also brings a vague air of dissolution to the character. The actor looks as if he is two sizes too small for the mantle of rich, eligible bachelor (an impression no doubt helped along by Oscar-winning costume designer Jacqueline Durran’s sage choices), and yet he throws himself across chaise lounges as if he owns the whole house—despite his good heart, Laurie also wields his privilege casually. Gerwig gives Laurie’s love triangle with Jo and Amy space to unfold naturally, and when Jo makes Laurie’s choice for him, Gerwig also teases out a sad inevitability to it.
The love triangle unfortunately sidelines nearly everything else not involving Jo or Amy. Meg is given the unenviable task of illustrating what happens when a woman chooses to marry for love, and Watson sadly is not up to the challenge of making her as vivid as she should be. Beth is still the martyr, but at least Scanlen invests her with a grim determination. If there is one downside to Gerwig’s time-hopping structure, it is that Beth’s ultimate fate comes too early. And yet, in juxtaposing funerals with weddings, the end of relationships with the beginning of new ones, Gerwig is more fully able to show us the roundness of lives being lived.
If there is one downside to Gerwig’s time-hopping structure, it is that Beth’s ultimate fate comes too early.
Gerwig also frees herself up in the last third to contemplate the question that she is really interested in: Now that the sisters are more or less squared away, what is next for Jo? Other tellings of Little Women have Jo finding love and matrimony in the stolid German professor Friedrich Bhaer—except in this version he’s French, and portrayed by the darkly alluring Louis Garrel. (As another critic pointed out, it’s like finding a rich soufflé where you expected a dry bratwurst.) And so of course Jo must end up with him—or does she? The master stroke in casting someone as charming as Garrel in the role is that we are now even more invested in seeing Jo end up with her harshest critic and most respectful of colleagues, but Gerwig cloaks our wishes in a deliciously ambiguous conclusion because she had been pondering other questions all along.
Gerwig is more interested in plumbing the depths of what it means to be a woman today, as seen through the prism of what it meant to be a trailblazer in mid-19th century America. “I am angry nearly every day of my life,” Marmee tells Jo in a fireside chat. It is a startling confession coming from the cuddliest of mothers in all of literature, but it is a change Gerwig does not apologize for. She also cribs a line from another of Alcott’s novels for a speech Ronan gives, about how women are more than their hearts…but also creatures of their hearts. If these women are angry—as women today are also angry—Gerwig says it is because they are so often forced to choose between their art and their life. In Gerwig’s gentle, assured touch, we see that there doesn’t have to be a choice: Your life can be your art.
It is a lesson worth learning over and over again, in the company of empathetic, full-blooded characters you’ll want to keep visiting over and over again. Fathers, watch this film with your wives and daughters; sons, watch this with your mothers; brothers, watch it with your sisters. In this fresh telling of Little Women, may we all realize that there is nothing little about our hopes and dreams.
Photographs from IMDB