Greta Gerwig (Novel: Louisa May Alcott)
Saoirse Ronan, Emma Watson, Florence Pugh, Eliza Scanlen, Laura Dern, Timothée Chalamet, Tracy Letts, Bob Odenkirk, James Norton, Louis Garrel, Jayne Houdyshell, Chris Cooper, Meryl Streep
PG for thematic elements and brief smoking
Buy on DVD/Blu-ray
One of literature’s best regarded novels has been a frequent target for adaptation through cinema history. Greta Gerwig’s take of the Louisa May Alcott classic is easily one of the finest adaptations of the film, giving the narrative just the right amount of tweaks to move it beyond mere verbatim recitation.
When Alcott wrote her novel Little Women in 1868, cinema wasn’t even an inkling of an idea. Yet, her celebrated novel has been adapted to film seven times. The first was a silent film in 1917. The most celebrated was the third adaptation released in 1933 starring Katharine Hepburn as Jo. The 1949 version was also well received with June Allyson as Jo and Elizabeth Taylor as Amy.
The 1994 version starring Winona Ryder as Jo was the most recent to reach cineplexes and receive solid reviews, but it’s this seventh adaptation starring Saoirse Ronan as Jo, Florence Pugh as Amy, Emma Watson as Meg, and Eliza Scanlen as Beth that might just be the best one yet.
The classic story of the headstrong Jo, bratty Amy, practical Meg, and shy Beth is told out of sequence with the bulk of the story taking place in flashback as Jo reflects on her family life and its influence on her career as a writer in New York City. Embellished just enough to mirror real life author Alcott’s own struggle with writing a children’s novel and getting her work published, Gerwig’s screenplay finds fascinating ways to make it resonant to modern audiences who have grown up on a steady diet of slowly improving depictions of strong women on the big screen.
The film unfolds with intelligence and wit as Ronan’s Jo struggles to stay true to herself while the outside world’s anti-feminist expectations try to push her into a marriage with her neighbor Laurie (Timothée Chalamet) whose upbringing has enabled him to be seen as a foppish rogue tempting every girl of a marriable age. After Jo’s careless rejection of his proposal, he goes in search of new vistas, including a trip overseas where he meets Amy as she’s maturing into an upstanding young woman. Beth marries and Meg comes down with scarlet fever in scenes that feel both familiar and more intimate than they ever have before.
Gerwig is clearly working at the top of her game. Following up on her wonderful directorial debut (Lady Bird), Gerwig uses her experience in the world of independent cinema to inform her decisions, she coaxes terrific performances out of her talented cast. Ronan and Pugh are the clear standouts, but all of the March woman deliver strong turns with superb support from their male co-stars as both Chalamet and Chris Cooper as his father giving their characters depth and emotional resonance. This is a film where the performances are every bit as wonderful as the film itself.
With the aid of Alexandre Desplat’s score and Yorick Le Saux’s compelling photography, Gerwig has created a film that keeps each frame fresh and vibrant in a familiar story that needs nothing more, but feels like it would be less special were they to do any less than the brilliant work everyone has put forth.
What works best in the film is that it never digs for the maudlin. Each tear and laugh are earned organically. Gerwig has now made two films that could one day be considered masterpieces, each tackling a new genre and bringing a fresh voice to cinema. Every moment in the film feels like a legendary filmmaker has crafted it setting her up to eclipse most of her contemporaries when history of this period of film is written. Little Women is a film that feels both instantly classic and revolutionary, deserving every bit of praise it can and then some.
April 14, 2020