Greta Gerwig’s second film, and the seventh adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s 1868 classic book Little Women, is stunning showcase of Gerwig’s talent as a director, and the incredible careers to come for the young cast.
Set during the American Civil War in Massachusetts, the exuberant March daughters are living a somewhat diminished existence since their father left for the frontlines – a semi-poverty in their large family home. Meg, the eldest, (Emma Watson) longs for a finer life, dreaming of balls and a wealthy marriage. Jo (Saoirse Ronan) is the primary character and through whom much of the novel and the film is told, is tomboy-ish, and an ambitious writer who declares often and loudly that she will never marry. Amy (Florence Pugh) wants to be the “best painter in the world” and is often at odds with Jo, their ambitions and tempers clashing. Beth, the youngest, is quiet, often observing but always taking part.
Just like the novel, Gerwig’s film transports you fully into another time, both drawing on history and set in it’s own world in which four young women take control of their destinies, living on the margins of history but still determined to make their own mark in the world – no matter how different. Weaving easily between the two timelines, during the war and then seven years later when the girls have grown up, Gerwig highlights the parallels that emerge in the lives of the March sister – a key focal point being Beth’s illness with scarlet fever. The early years are bursting with vibrancy and colour – from brightly coloured scarves, to purple slippers, as well as the golden light that seeps into ever frame.
When Meg marries, Jo declares that her “childhood has ended” – it may seem dramatic but there is certainly a sense of loss that comes with this change. The autumnal light fades as each girl moves forward in her own lives, even Jo’s clothing darkens into long black coats and deep blue skirts. Gerwig therefore is able to confidently and easily indicate where in the non-linear narrative the action is taking place without relying on disruptive title cards.
The reunion of Ronan with her Ladybird co-star Timothee Chalamet, playing Jo’s closest friend and confidante Laurie is one of pure delight. Their chemistry is effortless as the two friends whose feelings for each together deepen without ever feeling force. From the first moment they meet, in the back room of a ball, and decide to dance along with the music in their own way, the formula for much of their relationship is set. It is one of vibrancy, arguments and undeniable care for each other – and Laurie becomes increasing entwined in the lives of Jo and the rest of the March sisters. There are similarly strong performances from the rest of the March sisters, with a special mention to Pugh’s portrayal of Amy who can easily be made into a dislikeable character, especially for some of her actions against Jo in their childhood. Instead Pugh transforms the role in what continues to be a run of successful and stunning performances this year, and gives Amy a sense of longing and an unhappiness of being compared to her older sister that allows the depths of her personality to shine through.
Little Women, in both its source material and the film, is as much about a struggle for independence and happiness for each of the girls, who all differ wildly from each other in their ambitions, but all strive to be recognised as themselves. Gerwig truly captures a moment in time, but also a desire that truly resonates. Beautiful, heart-breaking and joyful, Little Women deserves its place among the top films of the year.