Beautifully directed by Greta Gerwig, LITTLE WOMEN is a deeply touching adaptation that effortlessly translates the 1886 novel for future generations. Capturing in lavish detail the minutiae of the original story, the film rings true at every beat. It is epic in scope, yet deeply intimate, uproariously funny and heartbreakingly sorrowful. It feels like an all-encompassing embrace, one that you want to return back to the second it’s over.
Spanning three generations of March women, the film charts a decade of sisters growing apart and together again. Told in nonlinear fashion, Gerwig uses repetition of childhood events seconds before present day catches up with great success. A past victory becomes a painful memory, while innocent heartbreak feels like a distant joke years later. In allowing the story to breathe in multiple timelines at once without signposting the change, the film feels lived in. Our memories are endlessly in motion, ready to overtake us when least expected. It’s not that Jo, the narrator and stand-in for Louisa May Alcott, is unreliable — but nostalgia is. Freeing the narrative from these constraints, LITTLE WOMEN allows the heart to wander as we perceive the passage of time.
For that reason the actors all play their parts regardless of age. There’s been vacuous hubbub about Florence Pugh being unbelievable as a twelve-year-old, which is missing the point. We see the women as they feel themselves to be, their inner spirits bursting at the seams. We catch glimpses of them as an outsider would in fleeting images. In these moments they appear as strangers, because we only perceive what is on the surface.
When Amy breaks down sobbing over her punishment at school, Pugh plays the scene with childlike abandon. In doing so her old soul merges with the physical reality. The result is a beautiful magic only possible in film.
Already impressive in the HARRY POTTER films, Emma Watson showcases wonderful nuance and sophistication in a difficult part. As Meg, the oldest sister who follows the most traditional path, Watson balances both expectation and disappointment with great subtlety. The tenderness and quiet optimism in the portrayal of her marriage is an unsung highlight of the film.
As Beth, Eliza Scanlen grounds the inherent goodness of the family in a touching performance. Often trampled by the boisterous nature of her more outgoing sisters, Beth seeks solace in music. Finding an unexpected benefactor in Laurie’s grandfather (a charming Chris Cooper), her story is one filled with compassion and humanity.
Laurie is played by Timothée Chalamet. Keenly aware he’s been chiseled from marble lathered in milk and honey, Laurie is smarmy, capricious, and arrogant. Yet Chalamet never allows him to be truly hateable. He is, like the others, still a child. Coming from upper class due to inherited wealth, Laurie appears in their life like a bolt of lightning. And like lightning he leaves devastation in his thunderous and uncaring wake.
The indispensable Laura Dern holds down the forth as Marmee. The beating heart of the March family, Marmee guides the girls with kindness and decency. Allowing for actors of every generation wonderfully complex scenes, Gerwig lets Dern shine in painfully honest moments throughout the film. A scene where Marmee expresses her battles to contain her anger at the world is a particular standout. Determined to live her own way, Jo mourns the unfair cost society claims such a life can be obtained. Elsewhere, Meg reminds Jo that just because her dreams are different they hold the same value as more adventurous ones. In one showstopper performance, Florence Pugh delivers a seismic monologue about the societal inequality that marriage brings, even today.
These are intense discussions worthy of generational sharing, just as important today as they were a hundred years ago.
Saoirse Ronan, one of the great actors of her time, carries the film as Jo. Appearing in nearly every scene, she is an incandescent ball of energy with an unfaltering moral compass. Encapsulating both an ideal as well as a potential tragedy, Ronan breathes Jo with life beyond her years. Gerwig in turn allows her to be everything from rambunctious to graceful, lovely and petty. Jo is not perfect, and she’s all the better for it.
Gerwig has also fully realized Alcott’s parallels between book and reality. In a moment of metafiction, Jo fully takes Alcott’s place, giving life to the book that will affect millions. It’s a touching tribute allowing the story to break free from the page to make its mark on the world.
LITTLE WOMEN acknowledges the sacrifices life demands everyone to make, but refuses to accept them as finalities. Unabashedly optimistic, Greta Gerwig’s film is a rallying cry for personal agency and faith in yourself. Especially in the face of something as overwhelming as life itself. It’s also a plea for decency and kindness to one another, where love of any kind can conquer all.
It is a fiction so honestly made the women become like distant family members. Alive forever on screen as a collective memory.