Director: Greta Gerwig
Starring: Saoirse Ronan, Emma Watson, Florence Pugh, Eliza Scanlen, Timothée Chalamet, Laura Dern, Meryl Streep, Bob Odenkirk
Words – Carly Stevenson
Greta Gerwig’s adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s beloved novel treads similar terrain to her previous film Ladybird (2017) – a tender coming-of-age story that centres around a close mother-daughter relationship. Similarly, the bond between ‘Marmee’ (Laura Dern) and her four daughters in Little Women is integral to the narrative, in that her selfless love and guidance are the anchoring forces that helps the March family endure the losses and hardships of genteel poverty.
Set against the backdrop of the American Civil War, Little Women follows sisters Jo (Saoirse Ronan), Meg (Emma Watson), Beth (Eliza Scanlen) and Amy (Florence Pugh) as they navigate the threshold between childhood and adulthood. Headstrong and fiery-tempered, Jo is a compelling protagonist and Saoirse Ronan captures her defiant spirit perfectly. Equally notable is Florence Pugh’s performance as Amy, the youngest and historically the most disliked March sister. Rather than emphasising Amy’s bratty and materialistic tendencies, as previous adaptations have done, Gerwig offers us a fully rounded characterisation that gives expression to the complexities of girlhood. More than simply a foil for Jo, Amy is her sister’s equal in brightness and ambition. In addition, Amy is arguably depicted as the most practical of her siblings: in one of her most memorable scenes, she indignantly tells her childhood friend Laurie (Timothée Chalamet) that she is not ashamed to pursue a rich husband because she acknowledges that marriage is ‘an economic proposition’ for a woman with no independent income.
Marriage is, of course, a recurring theme in Little Women and Jo’s aversion to matrimony contrasts absolutely with Meg’s enthusiasm for it. Rather than condemning Meg’s choice to settle into a life of domesticity, Gerwig takes care to show us that there are different kinds of happiness for women, and one path is not necessarily superior to another. As Meg says to Jo: ‘just because my dreams are different to yours doesn’t mean they’re unimportant’.
Jo’s dream of being a writer remains constant throughout the narrative, which deftly blends the past and the present in such a way that tragic events are mitigated by rosy scenes of childhood. This structure is echoed beautifully in the colour palette, which alternates between autumnal hues and soft, springtime pastels (with the exception of a few snowy Christmas scenes).
Rich in detail, Little Women lovingly evokes Alcott’s novel with its authentic New England scenery and period costumes, which fit each character perfectly: Jo’s unfussy, tomboyish attire sharply contrasts with the elegant gowns worn by Amy during her travels in Europe with Aunt March (Meryl Streep) and Meg during her debutante period, while Beth is generally seen in muted colours to match her quiet and gentle nature. As Alexandre Desplat’s classical yet contemporary score emphasises, Gerwig’s adaptation galvanises the source material, whilst respecting its brilliance.
By restructuring Alcott’s novel and introducing a metafictional element that enhances the original ending, Gerwig succeeds in making the story of Little Women as vital and relatable today as it was in 1868.