Film Review | Little Women: Gerwig gets the girls

Writer-director Greta Gerwig builds on a post-Lady Bird winning streak with this charming and cannily intelligent take on the much loved and oft-adapted American literary classic from Louisa May Alcott

Much like William Goldman’s swashbuckling classic The Princess Bride initially suffered at the box office due to its title, scaring off male audiences owing to its ‘girlish’ nature, so Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women is likely to consistently fail to attract the attention of even the most literary-inclined of teenage boys. More’s the pity, of course, not least because an intimate understanding of female hopes, dreams and desires as captured by Alcott in her late 19th century context might just have a calming effect on the young incels that lurk among us.

That’s not to say that Little Women has The Princess Brides’ action and adventure to fall back on, nor that its title is in any way an act of false advertising. But as Greta Gerwig’s recent adaptation proves, the contours of Alcott’s source novel do not, in fact, have to be bent too far to accommodate a fresh, relevant take on this frequently filmed mainstay of the American literary canon. Much like the actress-writer-director accomplished with her breakthrough feature, Lady Bird (whose Saoirse Ronan and Timothée Chalamet return here), Gerwig successfully crafts a gentle crowd-pleaser that aims for universal appeal while eschewing any form of aesthetic vulgarity.

In retelling the now-familiar story of the March sisters, guided across the morally straight and narrow by their kind-hearted matriarch ‘Marmie’ (Laura Dern) who pines for their temporarily absent father (Bob Odenkirk) who’s off fighting in the war, Gerwig takes only a somewhat postmodern tack. In what is very much a polyphonic ensemble cast, the closest we have to a central protagonist is Jo (Saoirse Ronan), an aspiring writer who peddles pieces of ‘scandal’ fiction to a sceptical editor (Tracy Letts) all the while hoping to write something more substantial in the near future. Called back home to Massachusetts from her teaching post in New York City after her sister Beth (Eliza Scanlen) falls ill, Jo is forced to measure up her ambitions with that of her other sisters, Amy (Florence Pugh) and Meg (Emma Watson), who are all, and all the while, silently judged by the austere Aunt March (Meryl Streep), while the mercurially charming figure of the half-Italian neighbourhood boy Laurie (Timothée Chalamet) holds sway over at least a couple of them.

Playing the erstwhile stand-in for both Alcott, it could be argued, Gerwig herself, it is Ronan who of course has the brightest spotlight under which to shine, and the Irish actress takes to the role with her seemingly endless supply of plucky perceptiveness. She is the ideal budding writer: operating with an outcast’s predilection to having one foot in and one foot out of the social comfort zone, always ready to prove herself and her skills and sceptical of the Marriage Distraction. Gerwig’s most audacious bit of adaptational re-jigging is saved for the very end, when the multiple authorial stand-in character of Jo is allowed to take the story to its most self-reflexive conclusion.

Though the film weaves in and around too much to allow for any of the girls to gobble up too much of the attention – perhaps another of Gerwig’s quiet acts of rebellion against ego-heavy, thrusting masculine narratives – and though both Watson and Scanlen deliver fine performances as Meg and Beth respectively, it is Pugh’s Amy who is the true ‘foil’ to Jo’s temperament and life ambitions. Their near-decade long sisterly conflict comes in fits and starts and spans across an emotional range that jumps from vindictive hissy fits to earnest moral judgements, with Pugh herself expertly channelling both the annoying brat and the mature, buddingly decisive young woman facing tough choices. A key scene in which she confronts Laurie with the harsh materialistic truths that a woman has to accept is a quiet piece of bravura acting that overwhelms in just the right ways.

However, perhaps the true nub of Gerwig’s nimble genius lies in the effortlessness with which the entire film unspools before our eyes, running along generously but in a way that never feels forced or over-extended. Some period dramas (read: most of them) locate their pleasure points in the mere mechanics and cosmetics of escapism, inviting viewers to escape into a world of lush settings and costumes that operates under the (mistaken) assumption that, unpleasant human rights-based retrogradism aside, things were so quaint ‘back then’.

Gerwig, instead, sweeps us along by drawing her characters precisely and carefully, with a narrative that flits from past to present to offer perspective, melancholy and wisdom.

The verdict

While remaining firmly within the boundaries of ‘good taste’ and never straying heretically far from the historical and cultural dictates of the source material, Greta Gerwig’s adaptation of Lousia May Alcott’s late 19th century novel and female coming-of-age staple is nonetheless a breath of fresh air. Eschewing conventional chronology in favour of fluid, dynamic storytelling and etching in some psychological depth and cultural (and economic) self-awareness in the girls, Gerwig nudges the novel to ‘grow up’ in tandem with its protagonists, and offers a rich cinematic repast while at no point dimming its indefatigable, undeniable charm.

Little Women is currently screening at Eden Cinemas, and will also be showing at Spazju Kreattiv Cinema, Valletta today and February 8 at 5.30pm, February 9 at 8pm, February 13 and February 18 at 7.30pm