At first glance, “Little Women” seems like an odd second venture for Greta Gerwig’s short but formidable directorial repertoire.
Gerwig’s 2017 coming-of-age comedy “Lady Bird” was a breakout indie hit, garnering the actor-turned-director a number of accolades come awards season and significant praise for creating something wholly original, modern and authentic. So the director’s decision to bring Louisa May Alcott’s 19th-century classic “Little Women” to the big screen, especially given that it would be the seventh film adaptation of the novel, was met with some trepidation.
But 2019’s “Little Women” is an absolute triumph. Gerwig, serving as both director and screenwriter, highlights the lasting importance of the novel’s characters and themes across generations, maintaining the tone and language of the novel while imbuing the script with a vivid, lively quality. And ultimately, the excellent ensemble cast brings new meaning to Alcott’s — and Gerwig’s — words.
Once again, we meet the March sisters — Meg (Emma Watson), Jo (Saoirse Ronan), Beth (Eliza Scanlen) and Amy (Florence Pugh) — four girls growing up in Civil War-era Massachusetts. While the novel chronologically follows the March sisters’ lives from their teenage years to young adulthood, the 2019 adaptation has their “past” and “present” timelines play out side by side in flashback format. Incorporated into the unique structure of the film are scenes of Jo March, originally a stand-in for Alcott in her semi-autobiographical novel, as she negotiates the publication of her stories with Mr. Dashwood (Tracy Letts), an editor of a weekly outlet in New York City.
The film’s greatest strength — the dynamism of its structure — could also be considered its one detriment. While Gerwig and cinematographer Yorick Le Saux take careful measures to differentiate in color and texture from the timelines, the pace of change and the number of events that take place in each scene can be confusing to viewers, even if they are familiar with the novel, because the actors do not physically age in the 10-year span of the film. Still, once audiences settle into the film’s structure, its nuance and originality are incredibly rewarding.
The structure also creatively accounts for some of the more controversial aspects of Alcott’s original work, particularly the romance between Amy and Theodore “Laurie” Laurence (Timothée Chalamet), the Marches’ neighbor. Their mature, flirtatious relationship plays out more believably on-screen than it does in the novel, as we see it develop alongside, rather than after, a young Laurie’s friendship with his unrequited love, Jo.
Of course, Gerwig’s screenplay and direction are elevated because of the strength of the film’s lead performances. While Watson and Scanlen make the most of their admittedly less dynamic characters with winning emotional moments, the liveliness that Ronan and Pugh bring to their characters is magnetic. Ronan brings the film’s leading lady Jo to life with equal levels of ambition, wisdom and complexity. Pugh, in a supporting role, runs away with the film’s best performance, hilarious and spunky as the younger Amy and heartbreakingly relatable as the elder.
But the strength of performances doesn’t end with the March sisters. Chalamet especially brings apt charm and energy to his role as Laurie, as viewers experience the lives of the March sisters primarily through his eyes. As he gradually becomes incorporated into their family, so does the audience — and we experience moments of excitement and heartache right alongside him.
By the time the film has reached its dreamlike ending, when Gerwig most notably breaks with the source material to make a broader social and economic statement, “Little Women” is sure to have stirred up more than just an emotional reaction. As a beautifully crafted, creative retelling of a story that’s been presented on-screen a multitude of times, the film charms, moves and inspires. Rather than simply bringing about a sense of nostalgia for Alcott’s beloved novel, Gerwig’s “Little Women” makes a case for why the Marches’ story matters just as much in 2019 as it did in 1868.