Friday 17 January 2020

Little Women review: 'A sweet, charming and affectionate film that delights and devastates in equal measure'

4 stars

Little Women (Sony/PA)
Little Women (Sony/PA)

Chris Wasser

Do we really need another film adaptation of Little Women? Since the early 20th century, there have been no less than eight cinematic riffs on Louisa May Alcott’s career-defining, semi-autobiographical novel, the most famous of which, is Gillian Armstrong’s beloved 1994 take, starring Winona Ryder as Jo March and a smouldering Christian Bale as that annoyingly bland, literary heartthrob Theodore ‘Laurie’ Laurence.

Ask around, and you’ll find that it’s the Ryder effort, with its cosy delivery, and picture-perfect cast, that continues to resonate with audiences. Seriously, people love that movie, and I do wonder if writer and director Greta Gerwig – the Oscar-nominated filmmaker behind 2017’s Lady Bird – ever had second thoughts about giving Alcott’s story another go on the big screen.

But Gerwig’s film is an entirely different beast. The story, its characters, and its bitter 19th-century setting remain in place. But the difference – and, indeed, the magic – is in the delivery.

We begin in a publishing house. It’s the late 1800s, and a young writer named Josephine March (Saoirse Ronan) has a meeting with newspaper boss Mr Dashwood (Tracy Letts), to discuss the publication of her latest short story. After Dashwood agrees to publish it, Jo runs on home with a spring in her step, and that’s when Gerwig’s smart and thoughtful remix gets interesting, with the film opening up into two timelines: one of which focuses on Jo’s new life in New York, and her eventual return to the family homestead.

Leading ladies: Saoirse with Laura Dern, Eliza Scanlen, Florence Pugh and Emma Watson
Leading ladies: Saoirse with Laura Dern, Eliza Scanlen, Florence Pugh and Emma Watson

The other takes us back seven years, to Concord, Massachusetts, where Jo and her sisters, Meg (Emma Watson), Amy (Florence Pugh) and Beth (Eliza Scanlen) come of age, against the backdrop of the Civil War.

You know the drill. The girls’ pastor father is serving in the war, leaving behind his wife Marmee (a brilliantly cast Laura Dern) to look after their daughters. Over a series of harsh winters, the girls entertain themselves with music, theatre, writing and, of course, the jobs bestowed upon them by their mother. Things get interesting when a kind, wealthy neighbour introduces the family to his young grandson Laurie (Timothee Chalamet). Naturally, everyone is smitten.

Meanwhile, a revolving sequence of flash-forwards depicts a future in which Amy (an aspiring artist) moves to France, with her Aunt March (a delightfully sarky Meryl Streep), Meg gets married and Jo moves away to become a teacher and a writer.

Gerwig’s carousel set-up sounds a little creaky on paper, but on screen, it flows spectacularly well, breathing new life into Alcott’s 1868 story, and providing additional clarity and emotional heft where necessary.

Gerwig goes in hard, too, on the themes, giving a number of famous sequences a decidedly modern makeover. The usual beats are still in place (Beth still gets sick). There are tweaks here and there (Jo’s true love is barely present). But for the most part, Gerwig’s warm, handsome and timely cover version works wonders.

Ronan — whose ability and presence soar with every new role – is so much more than just another Jo. Ronan is the quiet, beating heart of this funny, spirited and inventive display. Meanwhile, an excellent Pugh balances teenage angst and adult heartache with startling ease.

There are a few loose screws. Watson is a tad wooden, and I fear Chalamet’s soulful, carefree, dreamboat shtick, to which he’s become quite accustomed these past two years, is beginning to wear thin.

Still, these are but minor quibbles in a sweet, charming and affectionate film that delights and devastates in equal measure.


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