It’s arguable that writer/director Greta Gerwig was rather prematurely elevated to master rank with her acclaimed but somewhat overrated coming-of-age film Lady Bird. It was an auspicious calling card, but not quite the tour de force many were trumpeting. However, her sophomore film, Little Women, is something else. There have been innumerable adaptations of Louisa May Alcott’s forward-thinking novel both for the big and small screens, but Gerwig’s stands out as the strongest. Not only has she intelligently adapted the 1868 novel and breathed new life into a time-honoured story, but also established herself as one of the most promising directors of her generation.
A lesser filmmaker could have easily co-opted a heavy-handed, post-MeToo stance in telling the story of the lives of the March sisters – Jo (Saoirse Ronan), Meg (Emma Watson), Amy (Florence Pugh) and Beth (Eliza Scanlen) – from girlhood to womanhood. No such disappointment here, as Gerwig lets the already-timely material speak for itself and subtly magnifies the commentary on the social and sexual conventions of the time. Her dialogue positively fizzles with wit and passion, and the alterations are fantastic. Strongest of all is her chronological shuffle, as she has exploded the linear narrative; in doing so, Gerwig has purposed the back and forth between the past and the present to ingeniously heighten emotional impact, as well as character development.
The enviable cast, including Laura Dern, Meryl Streep, Timothee Chalamet and Chris Cooper, is as eye-wateringly good as the adaptation. The sisterly foursome is cast to perfection, with Ronan and Pugh reiterating the cast-iron fact that they’re incapable of giving bad performances. Of note is relative newcomer Eliza Scanlen’s performance as Beth, a character which previous adaptations have relegated as the “sickly one” but when Scanlen does so much with. The non-linear approach benefits Pugh’s character arc the most, but it’s the actor’s versatility that establishes her as the standout: her comic timing is spot-on and she makes Amy so much more than the brattish figure she’s so often discarded as.
All in all, Little Women is a fiercely intelligent and beautifully romantic film, an instant classic of the costume drama genre. March on.
Little Women | Directed by Greta Gerwig (US, 2019), with Saoirse Ronan, Florence Pugh, Eliza Scanlen, Emma Watson, Laura Dern. Starts Jan 30.
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