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Review: Little Women

Greta Gerwig has brought "Little Women" into the 21st Century and it's a cinematic triumph.

“Women, they have minds, and they have souls, as well as just hearts. And they’ve got ambition, and they’ve got talent, as well as beauty, and I’m so sick of people saying that love is just all a woman is fit for. I’m so sick of it!”

So declares Saoirse Ronan, who plays the passionate writerly March sister Jo in Greta Gerwig’s new adaptation of Little Women. Eyes wild and voice quivering with emotion, these lines are delivered towards the end of the movie, and seem to crystallize the feminist outtake of the entire film thus far. The women of this movie, as Ronan stresses, are all talented, free-thinking spirits that cannot solely be defined by their marriages. The point works on a meta level too: produced, directed and acted by a largely female cast, Little Women is a testimony to female talent in film for the post-#MeToo era.

The story is as personal to some as it is familiar to all: it follows the four March sisters – beautiful Meg (Emma Watson), fiery “scribbler” Jo (Saoirse Ronan), shy Beth (Eliza Scanlen) and ambitious Amy (Florence Pugh) – through their struggles with poverty and loss, heartbreak and marriage, and, ultimately, their growth into womanhood. With their father away fighting in the Civil War, the adventures of the March sisters are shared with neighbourhood playmate, Laurie (Timothée Chalamet), and are largely overseen by the guidance of “Marmee,” played by the spectacular Laura Dern. The film’s settings match the feel of the book: production took place near Concord, Massachusetts, in landscapes of beach and snow that provide striking backdrops on screen. The March’s home too looks identical to that of Alcott’s own, radiating intimacy and warmth in such a way that the audience feels themselves welcomed in.  

Whilst faithful to the source material, Gerwig has daringly spliced the two halves of the novel into a non-chronological structure, maintaining tension as the story cuts between its uplifting and tragic moments. This new architecture for Little Women can initially be confusing for those unfamiliar with the book, as weddings meld into funerals and double bouts of sickness become one, but the effect is masterful. Once the film settles into itself, the narrative cycles between present and past with  ease, constantly reminding us how integral nostalgia is to everything that the March sisters do; even in the present, there is always a sense of reflection; a sense that their childhood – although lost – underpins their formation as grown women. Stitched together by the romantic score of Alexandre Desplat, this new structure is proof that Gerwig’s writing is as strong and measured as her directing.

The film gives each character space to flourish, particularly in the case  of Amy, who is brilliantly portrayed by Florence Pugh. Typically reduced in past adaptations to the bratty, vain sister in a story which lacks a real villain, this version allows for a depth of character never seen before on screen. Thanks to Pugh’s standout performance, the audience easily recognizes Amy’s growth from child to artist, and appreciates her sense in insisting that marrying for financial security can be an empowering choice: “I believe we have some power over who we love,” she asserts when pressed for not having a more poetic idea of love.

In fact, the film becomes as much a story of Amy as it is of Jo: they are more similar than they may seem, Gerwig hints, highlighting multiple parallels in the two sister’s ambitions and sense of independence. Their reactions to the proposals they receive are at first firm rejections – Amy will not be “second to Jo” and Jo’s writing will not be “second” to a marriage; she would rather be “a literary spinster” and “paddle [her] own canoe.” Yet in comparison to Pugh’s Amy, Ronan’s performance as Jo, whilst charged and precise, seems weaker and conveys Jo’s creative passion less assertively. One wonders whether Gerwig herself might have once suited the role better, having noted Jo March as a personal heroine in terms of her own career in movie making. 

Indeed, the film becomes a playground bustling with flashes of Gerwig’s earlier work and her own life. Jo’s urgent running through the streets of New York at the film’s start, shortly after her story is accepted for publication, parallels Gerwig’s street-dashing in Frances Ha. Jo’s course to detach herself from a financially deprived family will also remind viewers of Ronan’s performance in Lady Bird, Gerwig’s 2018 coming-of-age movie, which she wrote and directed. Perhaps most personally of all, Little Women is a story of what it means to be a female artist in a world controlled by men, an idea that still rings true for Gerwig, who is one of the few female directors working in Hollywood today. 

The film’s ending expresses this particularly well, showing how Jo’s role as an artist takes precedence over her role as a wife:  Gerwig cleverly turns Jo into an Alcott figure, publishing Little Women under her own terms. “What I was trying to reverse-engineer was this moment that Jo getting her book would make the audience feel like you usually feel when the heroine is chosen by the hero,” Gerwig said after a film screening in New York. “I wanted to see if I could create that feeling, but with a girl and her book.”

It is an apt ending for a uniquely personal movie. Genius is a word thrown around too often in regards to filmmakers, but it is the only one fitting to describe Gerwig, whose new adaptation is exquisitely tender, distinctive, and full of love. The new Little Women is a film that will be watched for years to come, and like Jo, will undoubtedly “make its own way in this world” with both confidence and success.

Little Women is currently screening in theaters and will be competing for Best Picture at the Oscars this Sunday.

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