There have been plenty of reviews by men that open with “I haven’t read the book but…” and I’m unfortunately going to have to add to that pile. It’s not deliberate ignorance, it’s just a classic I’ve just never gotten round to reading. Whatever your knowledge of Louisa May Alcott’s story beforehand, I can guarantee in the assured hands of writer-director Greta Gerwig and a ridiculously talented cast, LITTLE WOMEN will pull you in to the lives of the March sisters. By the way, Gerwig should have received a Best Director nomination, duh.
Aspiring writer Jo March (Saoirse Ronan) submits some short stories to publishers and looks back on growing up with her three sisters Meg (Emma Watson), Beth (Eliza Scanlen) and Amy (Florence Pugh) during the American Civil War, a story that may well inspire her own master work.
The story’s framing device of Jo writing, editing and selling Little Women to a publisher is clever, and meta without being smug. It asks us to consider the writing process and an author’s intentions, while highlighting the veritable mountain women had to climb to be taken seriously and maintain their independence in this period.
The storytelling structure that hops back and forth over the years and introduces new memories tied to distinct objects and locations, takes some getting used to. When you’ve got your eye in, though, and you’re completely engrossed it’s a powerful technique. It also helps a great deal to keep track of where we are when Jo gets a haircut.
The March Sisters reminded me very much of the Brontës – the latter artistically-minded siblings getting name-checked at one point by Amy as one of the few women declared geniuses by their contemporaries. They’re all extremely gifted in a particular discipline, as different as they are similar to one another and though loyal to and protective of each other they of course have vicious fallouts – they both petty and monumental – and difficult times aplenty to work through together.
When you’ve got a central foursome this talented it’s really tough to pick out one performance that particularly stands out. Pugh’s Amy is vocal, passionate and gets a great monologue about a woman’s in-built disadvantage in the world even if she marries well. Scanlan’s Beth is always the calming voice in the family, quiet and wise beyond her years (if pushed, she’s my favourite). Watson’s Meg is maternal and keen to settle down but doesn’t want to miss out on too much life either. Ronan’s Jo seems the most independent and headstrong sister but can only put a brave face on her situation for so long, floored by negative criticism of her work and with a late heartbreaking confession that “I’m so lonely” being one of the moments of 2019 film, as is all the tender time she spends with an ailing Beth.
You completely buy why all the March sisters would have fallen head-over-heels for Laurie. He’s got plenty of unlikeable traits, sure, but in Timothée Chalamet’s hands he’s charm and good hair personified. Of course the romantic subplots are a secondary concern to the Marches’ unbreakable relationships with each other, and their happily ever after with the various men (James Norton and Louis Garrel join Chalamet) who aren’t good enough for them is left pleasingly ambiguous.
If the flawless performances, genuine emotions and gorgeous cinematography don’t get you, then Alexandre Desplat’s (having a great few years following THE SHAPE OF WATER) heartstring-strumming score will surely finish you off.
Greta Gerwig is one of the best actor’s directors working today. The way she sees these timeless characters, how she built her cast’s relationships and encouraged her actors to bring something of themselves to the role, to become a real family over the course of the shoot, is absolutely essential to this new take on a well-trod story connecting. Little Women is an absolute joy – wittily funny, truthful and insightful about family, creativity and becoming a fully-rounded person. SSP