Synopsis – Jo March reflects back and forth on her life, telling the beloved story of the March sisters – four young women each determined to live life on their own terms.
My Take – When it was announced that author Louisa May Alcott’s beloved two-volume novel, which upon publication in 1868 and 1869 broke new ground by giving young women an entirely new set of role models to read about that went beyond the conventional domestic ones, was getting another adaption, considering the fact that the source material already has six feature films to its name along with a numerous number of TV adaptions, the only question which crossed cinephiles mind was that, what more was left do?
However, when it was revealed that actress turned filmmaker Greta Gerwig, would helm the new adaption, hot off the stellar success of 2017’s indie gem Lady Bird, nothing but excitement was felt. With the buzz increasing as soon as announcements of the star-studded cast were made.
To be honest, I have not read the source material nor watched any of the multiple adaptations, nor did I have any idea how closely the film followed the book but I’d suspect from the positive reviews there hasn’t been too many big differences.
Hence, purely from a film-making point of view, I found this one to be one of the most poignant and important films to come out in recent times, which can be confidently dubbed as a must-watch for everyone. Despite this being her sophomore effort, as a director Greta Gerwig, exceptionally succeeds in bringing a great story about young women finding their place in the world.
To my surprise and joy, there is no heavily politically correct agenda shoe-horned in either and is just a warm, expertly crafted film that keeps it light hearted while dealing with a lot of struggles and tribulations people go through in their lives, a factor which will help the film appeal to both young women and men.
Told in a nonlinear fashion, the story follows Jo March (Saoirse Ronan), an impulsive, ambitious, and poor writer living in New York City circa 1868 as a teacher. As she struggles to find her voice and build the career she wants, she reflects on her charming yet often imperfect childhood in Concord, Massachusetts. More specifically, the lives of her three sisters. Meg (Emma Watson), the oldest one who ended up marrying a poor tutor, John Brooke (James Norton), and has two children, and continues to long for a more lavish lifestyle.
Jo’s younger sibling, Beth (Eliza Scanlen) is musically inclined, but sickly, and mostly at home with her piano. And Amy (Florence Pugh), the youngest, who is even feistier than Jo, lives out her dream of studying painting in Paris, only to realize that her dream might not be what’s right for her. Doing her best to encourage the girls is their mother, Marmee (Laura Dern), who’s struggling to raise them in the absence of their father (Bob Odenkirk), currently away serving as a pastor with Union forces in the Civil War.
All of the girls are intrigued, to one extent or another, by Theodore “Laurie” Lawrence (Timothée Chalamet), an attractively tousled rich boy who lives nearby in a mansion owned by his kindly grandfather (Chris Cooper). While Laurie is obviously drawn to Jo, but her dreams are too big to include him. Also circling the action is a wealthy relative, Aunt March (Meryl Streep), who’s planning to take Amy along on a grand tour of Europe to broaden her cultural horizon, and a German academic named Friedrich (Louis Garrel), whose relationship with Jo gets off to an awkward start after she gives him some of her stories to read.
The story takes us over a decade of these sisters’ lives as their lifestyles change, their needs adapt and the incoming adulthood goes on to change their naive bright youth. Upon first glance, director Greta Gerwig’s film might seem like just another generic costume drama, it’s anything but. Mainly as her approach to storytelling is innovative and refreshing, which also handles important messages bravely.
As a filmmaker, this effort is a huge step-up for director Greta Gerwig, who here perfectly orchestrates a tight web of stories and arcs. While you may see some events coming, none of them are too obvious and it’s just a pleasure being in the company of all these characters. No one feels left out and all have emotional resonance to the plot. With sisterhood and the importance of family sitting at the heart of the story, moments that see them apart are few and far between, and when they are separated the film takes on a blue-grey chill, representing their collective soul.
The film takes on a wider balance of warmth-and-cold throughout, seesawing between hope and loss, pairing aspirations of marriage and burgeoning careers against unexpected, tragic death. These timeless ideas are approached with an intriguing, contemporary sensibility, and it works marvelously.
The film also allows time to distinguish each character’s individual traits and their internal relationships with others. Although Jo March is at the center of the film’s nonlinear story, each sister gets an individual arc that meanders between adulthood and childhood. Who in in their own respective way, try to find their place in this not-so-dated misogynistic world, one that has a very specific vision for them i.e. marry someone rich. Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy’s visions for their lives don’t go according to how they imagined their lives would be as children, so they just adjust.
Here, director Gerwig shows the obstacles in being a woman during this era and never becomes overly preachy or feminist about it, and instead creates insightful dialog and conversations to tell their plight and ambitions with such concise craftsmanship and care.
Whether that be the sisterly bond of the March sisters which remains strong across time or the electric duo that is Jo and Laurie. The differing pathways that individual relationships take is explored with care and consideration. The film is also expertly signed-off with questions about creative ownership, ambition and the ability to step out of line in a society who seeks to silence.
Technically, the film is gorgeous in its visuals and outstanding production values. Alexandre Desplat‘s romantic music score sets the lyrical mood throughout the film and Yorick Le Saux‘s cinematography is stunning. Add to that, Jess Gonchor‘s wonderful production design and Jacqueline Durran‘s exquisite costumes which not only show a range of styles that comment on her sisters’ personalities, while also staying in period garb.
Admittedly, condensing a 759-page novel into the span of one film is an impossible job and some character development gets lost. We rarely see consequences unfold, nor do we sense any self-reflection. We never feel the weight of possible stakes. For example, we see the girls sacrifice their Christmas breakfast only to be immediately served a more extravagant one, there’s no thought to how Beth’s illness could have been prevented and Amy ultimately loses nothing by turning down her first marriage proposal.
But thankfully the film does produce magic in the stacked cast, with chemistry and camaraderie bursting from every scene. Saoirse Ronan once again gives a commanding performance that brilliantly conveys her character’s self-doubt and determination about her writing. Her chemistry with Timothée Chalamet, who is excellent as always, is one of the film’s delight and gives the film a deeper meaning and only enhances an already outstanding screenplay.
Florence Pugh deserves every award and praise coming her away, as she makes a character that can be at times whiny and repulsive to being rather sympathetic and loving. Her speech about the inequality of women’s right is a standout and very well delivered. Both Emma Watson and Eliza Scanlen are also very good. Excellent support also comes in from Meryl Streep, Laura Dern, Chris Cooper, Tracy Letts, Bob Odenkirk, James Norton, Louis Garrel and Jayne Houdyshell. On the whole, ‘Little Women’ is an empowering, refreshing and excellently crafted drama backed by an incredible cast.
Directed – Greta Gerwig
Rated – PG
Run Time – 135 minutes