Writer-director Greta Gerwig follows up her breakout debut Lady Bird with Little Women, an enchanting and exquisite modern take on Louisa May Alcott’s autobiographical novel. It’s a daunting task taking on such a well-known work, one that has now been adapted to film eight times now, but Gerwig has committed to creative choices that distinguish this iteration from its ilk. In the best way, this feels like a “remix” of the original source material, focusing on tone and theme more than adhering strictly to the narrative as it’s laid out in the book. Bolstered by lush camerawork and a first-rate ensemble cast, this is a delightful and supremely entertaining take on a coming-of-age classic.
Set in 1860s New England, the story centers around the March family as Marmee March (Laura Dern) looks over her four daughters while Father March (Bob Odenkirk) fights in the Civil War. There’s Jo (Saorise Ronan), the rambunctious aspiring writer who captures the affection of the devilishly charming next-door neighbor Laurie (Timothée Chalamet). There’s Meg (Emma Watson), who dreams of a life on the stage with a suitor waiting in the wings. There’s Amy (Florence Pugh), the youngest whose jealousy and selfishness tend to get the best of her. Finally, there’s Beth (Eliza Scanlen), whose sweet and reserved disposition is reflected in her beautiful piano playing that warmly fills the March residence.
Gerwig’s boldest artistic direction, in conjunction with editor Nick Houy, comes in how she approaches the chronology, beginning the film with Jo as an adult pitching a pulp novel to the incredulous Mr. Dashwood (Tracy Letts). From there, we flash back six years to Jo’s childhood in the lively March household and then we flip back and forth in time to follow not only Jo’s journey but also the stories of the other three sisters as well. As is tradition for retellings of this tale, Jo remains the focus but Gerwig expands the scope of the character work by allowing us to spend more time with the rest of the March family. For example, Amy has been more crudely drawn in other adaptations but through Pugh’s performance and Gerwig’s writing, she’s a fully fleshed-out character.
The dream cast, which also includes venerable veterans like Laura Dern and Meryl Streep, is perfectly realized in both major and minor roles. Rekindling their pre-existing partnership from Lady Bird, Ronan and Chalamet showcase an effortless charm and chemistry that brings out the very best of the actors’ sensibilities. Pugh caps off her breakout year with another winning performance that cements her as one of the most magnetic young actresses working today. Also carried over from Lady Bird is Letts, who scores some big laughs as a cynical publisher who playfully picks apart Jo’s pending novel, peppering in pieces of advice like “if the main character is a girl, make sure she’s married by the end.”
Bringing the whole package together are some terrific contributions from behind the camera. The elegant cinematography from Yorick Le Saux makes beautiful use of natural light in every scene, book-matching the opening and concluding shots of the film with transcendent symmetry. Musically, Alexandre Desplat’s stately yet spritely score adds the perfect notes of sophistication and whimsy for a period drama such as this. Little Women is proof that with the right combination of ingenuity and intelligence, it’s possible to make even the most well-worn stories feel fresh once again.
Score – 4.5/5
Coming to theaters this weekend:
The Grudge, starring Andrea Riseborough and John Cho, is a remake of a remake about a spooky house cursed by a vengeful spirit who haunts and kills all those who enter it.
Reprinted by permission of Whatzup