I appreciated this new take on Louisa May Alcott’s beloved semi-autobiographical novel more than I loved it, which is not to say that there weren’t things I unabashedly loved.
If you haven’t read the book or seen any previous adaptations, some spoilers to follow.
I first read Little Women when I was sixteen or so, and though at times I found the book too saccharine and preachy for my liking, the stories of the four March sisters had an undeniable appeal. And of course, being an ungroomed teenage bookworm, how could I possibly not love Jo, the unofficial main character and the fiery rebel with boundless imagination and ink-stained fingers? It doesn’t come as a massive surprise that Jo, brilliantly brought to life by Saoirse Ronan (who is quickly turning into one of my favourite actresses), is once again the best thing about this new film version written and directed by Greta Gerwig. Though I’m also very fond of Winona Ryder’s Jo, Gerwig and Ronan make Alcott’s proto-feminist heroine even more compelling and complicated.
The recent A Star Is Born is a proof that there’s always room for an old story re-told for a new generation, but Gerwig’s interpretation goes further than a straight remake, and takes a bold gamble by opting to tell the familiar story in a non-linear fashion. There are two distinctly colour-coded timelines: one with warmer colours consists of flashbacks to the sisters’ childhood as they grow up in an impoverished but happy household during the American Civil War, while the cooler and more sombre palette is reserved for the present-time adulthood. As the movie begins, Jo is already in New York, living in a boarding house and trying to get her writing career off the ground, while oldest sister Meg (Emma Watson) is married with two kids. Sickly doomed Beth (Eliza Scanlen) is at home with Marmee (Laura Dern, warm and bohemian), and youngest sister Amy (Florence Pugh) is in Paris with the grumpy Aunt March (Meryl Streep, very amusing and acerbic in a small role), working on her painting and social prospects. There she runs into Laurie (Timothée Chalamet), a childhood friend who is all lost and bitter after his failed marriage proposal to Jo.
This flashback structure, while undoubtedly making for a new and fresh spin on the story, was also the source of my greatest reservations about the film. At times, the whole “adult reminiscing about the childhood” angle works really well, emphasising the barriers and obstacles that face the sisters as they grow up. Gerwig does a great job highlighting the period’s social and economic realities where women and marriage are concerned in a clear-eyed yet gentle and organic manner. On the other hand, this jigsaw storytelling leaves little room for the truly felt character progression and growth in relationships, and often dulls the emotion of the big key moments. When we’ve already seen how the consequences of these moments play out, they can feel like something the film is obligated to tick off the list and nothing more. Beth’s death, which by all rights should be a devastating event, is not really served well by cutting between her current sickness and the brush with death she had experienced when younger.
Gerwig’s attempt to be generous and inclusive to all the sisters likewise pays mixed dividends. Florence Pugh is marvellous as the impulsive and headstrong Amy, the youngest sister desperate to stand out, and the often tense and volatile relationship between Jo and Amy is one of the film’s highlights. It’s a bit of a shame that Chalamet, who is fine as the younger Laurie, still looks far too boyish as the supposedly older Laurie next to Pugh’s strikingly mature older Amy. The other two sisters don’t fare anywhere near as well; Beth is little more than a suffering saint, while Emma Watson doesn’t leave much impression as Meg – not to sound mean but she’s just not an actress who can elevate an underwritten role.
Despite these criticisms, Little Women still had enough visual beauty, warmth, charm and freshness to be a worthy viewing. Also, after resenting Jo’s ending in the book for years and years, I loved Gerwig’s meta treatment of the ending which, in real life, was forced onto Alcott by the publishers who insisted that the main heroine simply must marry at the finish line. Though it gives Professor Bhaer a significant upgrade by making him younger and sexier, the film ultimately portrays the publishing of Jo’s book as her real happy ending.