Review: Little Women

5 January 2020

A search for the title of Greta Gerwig’s new film into IMDb brings up more than 15 screen adaptations of Louisa May Alcott’s iconic 1868 novel. One can find everything from the now lost 1917 British silent film to an Emmy-winning 1979 mini-series. It seems the exercise of adapting Little Women would have become a tired exercise by now, given its retelling has been more or less consistent since the invention of the moving image (the last major adaptation being Australian director Gillian Armstrong’s ravishing version from 1994). Yet Greta Gerwig has crafted a layered and intelligent film which is sure to stand out as one of the story’s best incarnations.

In Lady Bird, Gerwig’s sensitively told semi-autobiographical debut, the digital noise of the image was heightened in post-production to create a grainy, photograph-like aesthetic which emphasised a nostalgic yet self-reflective mode of storytelling. Little Women is a radical expansion of her canvas: the period visuals are lush and the image is crisp and clear; its scale large where Lady Bird was small, grandly cinematic where Lady Bird was small and intimate. But for the careful observer, Gerwig puts no less of herself into her second feature.

At its core, Little Women is a family drama. The genteelly poor March family, who live in a neighbourhood in the eastern American state of Massachusetts, are struggling to support themselves in the absence of their father, who is serving in the Civil War. The close-knit sisters are Meg (Emma Watson), Beth (Eliza Scanlen), Amy (the scene-stealing Florence Pugh), and the pivotal Josephine “Jo” March, brought wonderfully to life by Saoirse Ronan, in something of a surrogate for both Alcott and Gerwig. Jo is free-spirited, craves independence and is determined to become a professional writer. Holding the family together is their mother, known affectionately as ‘Marmee’ and played with wonderful warmth by Laura Dern. The Marchs’ wealthy young neighbour, Theodore “Laurie” Laurence (Timothée Chalamet), soon becomes a close companion to the sisters, assisting the family financially and participating in plays written by Jo that the sisters perform. But soon, their seemingly idyllic existence inevitably begins to fall away, and Gerwig spends a significant amount of time exploring the difficulties and limitations women face as they leave childhood’s protective shell.

Little Women is a radical re-arranging of Alcott’s novel, a tapestry of moments rather than a chronological narrative. For the most part, this configuration plays out seamlessly, allowing Gerwig to traverse thematic terrain in a sophisticated way as opposed to simply re-running the well-worn tracks of each narrative beat. At times, the film is a little too light on its feet, hopping time periods a little too frequently such that it intrudes briefly upon the viewing experience. But Gerwig and cinematographer Yorick Le Saux’s use of colour is a marker of time, easing our ability to navigate. Heightened vibrancy and warm shades characterise the March home of the sisters’ childhood, while cooler tones prevail after Jo and her sisters begin to leave their nest. Little Women continually oscillates between the boisterous energy of the sisters, tumbling over each other’s words whenever they are in each other’s presence (which, if one looks at samples from Gerwig’s script, were meticulously put together, down to the word at which each character is interrupted by the next) and quieter moments of introspection.

Unlike many others, I did not grow up with Alcott’s novel, and so, like this film, my experience of the story is on contemporary terms. Fittingly, Gerwig’s film feels remarkably contemporary: though set in the 1860s, just about the only part of 2019’s Little Women that could be described as ‘period’ is its costumes and production design. A rousing testament to the power of telling your own story, the film becomes outwardly self-reflexive when Jo must negotiate the terms of her work being published, from copyright, royalties, and the representation of societal gender roles. Gerwig has much to say about women telling their stories in the modern age, and the difficulty in remaining authentic to their experiences in an industry full of male gatekeepers.

The feminism of the film is strongly contemporary, painting a fluid portrait of womanhood where feminine identity becomes what each individual brings to it, whether that be career ambition, a mastery of craft, or marriage and motherhood. Feminine expression is also celebrated, not portrayed as frivolous and shallow but as a worthy pleasure. But there is an exclusivity here as well—obviously, the source material Gerwig is working from does not lend itself to an intersectional perspective, but given how contemporary the rest of her film feels, it is something of a missed opportunity not to devote time to exploring the relative privilege of the March sisters in a newly post-slavery America, or to look into the potential queerness of Jo as a character (it has been retrospectively suggested that Louisa May Alcott may herself have fallen outside of cisgender and heterosexual categories of identity).

Little Women celebrates the strive of making art, the joy of family togetherness and the bonds between women. “I had lots of troubles, so I write jolly tales”, reads the film’s opening epigraph, itself a quote from Alcott. With her latest, Greta Gerwig mines Little Women for its lingering relevance in 2019, and I hope she continues to make insightful and deeply felt films which centre around young women in a state of becoming.

‘Little Women’ opens in Australian cinemas on January 1st 2020.

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