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The Beaver Reviews: Little Women

When one review just won’t do – Molly Horner, Raphaelle Camarcat, and Amber Iglesia give their opinions on Greta Gerwig’s latest masterpiece

  1. Molly’s 

Little Women: Triumph of the Female Gaze ★★★★

Ever since precocious, bold girls who spent a little too much of their childhood reading to fully dispel an overblown sense of their own artistic ability have existed, there has been space for Little Women.  If this sounds snarky, it’s not meant to be — I fit the stereotype myself. The novel, published in 1868 by Louisa May Alcott, has ruled over the primary school fiction shelf for generations, telling the story of the four gifted March sisters whose unconventionally artistic and free upbringing in liberal Connecticut sets the tone for the rest of their lives. It would be easy to think there is nowhere else to take such a novel. That would be a mistake.

Writer and director Greta Gerwig breathes new life into the tale, dissipating any cynicism. Alcott was truly a radical of her time: she never married, mixed with Transcendentalists like Thoreau and Emerson, and made her living selling stories of feisty independent women. Gerwig allows the spirit of Alcott’s life to permeate without making the material feel preachy or dated — on the contrary, it feels remarkably fresh and relevant.

The casting is the strength of the piece. Florence Pugh is a particular standout as the spoiled Amy, ably changing from a pampered, silly teenager to a conflicted young woman. Emma Watson is decorative and dull as Meg (objectively the most boring March sister), whereas Eliza Scanlen is luminous as the sickly Beth. Saorise Ronan is a perfect Jo, the protagonist and aspiring novelist: her eyes manage to communicate more than ten pages of dialogue. 

Speaking of dialogue, Gerwig’s masterstroke is her use of layered speech: the girls shouting and squawking over each other. It’s a meticulously executed choice, and its startling naturalism makes the audience realize how rare it is to hear routine, riotous, joyful communication between young women in movies.  

Gerwig draws on various artistic influences: her characters read letters directly to the camera, reminiscent of Jean-Luc Godard’s 1960 French New Wave jewel, Breathless. The languorously shots for scenes on the beach could have leapt straight out of a Winslow Homer painting. A portrait of the godmother of modern feminism, Mary Wolstonecraft, lounges on an easel behind Amy in her Paris studio.

I haven’t even mentioned Laura Dern’s tender Marmie or Meryl Streep’s scene-stealing Aunt March. Oh, and Timothee Chalamet bathed in nineteenth-century ruffled shirts and waistcoats. Bliss.

Little Women is truly a triumph of the female gaze, much like Gerwig’s lauded 2017 picture Lady Bird, also starring Ronan and Chalamet. It is patently obvious that a woman wrote and directed this film, just as it is obvious that the original novel had a female author. The foibles, failings, joys, and griefs of these young women are portrayed so sensitively and gracefully that you have no choice but to be intimately invested in their stories.

2. Raph’s 

Little Women : Lost and Found Again ★★★★★

When I first stumbled upon Little Women as a presumptuous French nine-year-old, I decided to read the novel to show off in front of my parents. There isn’t an abundance of French kids reading English classics, and I believed it made me look incredibly smart and fancy. Truth is, I found the book unbelievably boring, quite old fashioned, and lengthy. I had failed to capture what made the March sisters so fiercely captivating and believed them to belong to a different century than mine. 

I was completely wrong. 

Ten years later, I decided to give the novel a second try, but only after seeing the film adaptation. Out of the dozen existing theatre, film, and television adaptations of Little Women, Greta Gerwig’s strikingly stands out. Its renewed vigour and freshness bring 19th-century literature to life, exploring Louisa May Alcott’s iconic characters under a new light. 

Little Women is a tale of a woman’s artistic vocation and ambitions going beyond the initial societal barriers imposed on her. It focuses on the life of four sisters in Civil War-era Massachusetts: Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy. Gergiwg’s clever flashback structure reflects the girls’ coming-of-age stories, plunging the audience into the sisters’ girlhoods and taking them along the tumultuous way to adulthood. Two distinct timelines evolve: one presents the girls as teenagers, the second as young women leading distinct lives. 

Jo March (Saiorse Ronan) remains faithful to Alcott’s vision as the fiercely iron-willed, independent minded  ‘son’ of the family. She’s the March sisters’ powerhouse. Her restless attitude is matched by her burning temper and aspirations to become a writer in an oppressive 19th-century patriarchal society, but Jo March’s fate is not the same in Gerwig’s adaptation as in Alcott’s book. Where in the novel Jo marries and bows to the pressure of her era, in Gerwig’s version Jo finds success and satisfaction not in marriage but in her own work, publishing a novel about her sisters following Beth’s death, opening a school in Aunt March’s house, and keeping the book’s publication rights.

Gerwig restores Jo’s true fate in the finale Alcott always planned, but was forced to change as her editor believed the book would never sell without a traditional ‘romantic’ ending. In this way, Gerwig made Alcott the true heroine: Jo’s character was based on her own life and struggles as a woman. Alcott never married, but built her own fortune writing and selling Little Women. The movie’s script was based on Alcott’s diaries and letters, from which a few lines are drawn. As Jo becomes a portrayal of Alcott herself, the movie becomes a tribute to the author hiding behind the March sisters’ story, and her ambitions. It breaks from the novel’s previous adaptations and anchors the narrative in a new modern context, celebrating female literary creations with a carefully staged mise en abyme

Gerwig doesn’t simply cast a new light upon Jo’s character but also gives a new voice to Amy (Florence Pugh), a traditionally hated character who steals the boy and burns Jo’s book. In this version, she is finally represented with more nuance. Pugh’s performance, combined with Gerwig’s direction, offers a new take on her role: she isn’t selfish and vain, but comprehends the realities that women of her time face with an emotional intelligence her sisters lack. In a brilliant scene, she reveals what marriage really is to her suitor, Laurie (Timothée Chalamet), and explains why she needs to marry rich: it is her only way of helping her family as a woman. Gerwig also makes clear that she has feelings for Laurie, a man who could offer financial security for her entire family. Marrying him at the end of the movie no longer appears a baldly selfish move but a sensible choice. 

Little Women gives audiences the chance to see the characters’ relatability and how their struggles continue to echo today.  Gerwig brings their stories to life and gives them a fresh start in 2020. For that, I thank her. 

3. Amber’s

Little Women – Nothing “Little” About It ★★★★ 

It’s a rare achievement for a director to produce a captivating interpretation of a well-known story, but Greta Gerwig manages to make the familiar feel vibrant.  Among several remakes of Little Women, Gerwig’s original stamp is clear across her powerful, nostalgic, and emotive rethinking of the American literary classic. Perfectly-cast Saoirse Ronan (Jo March), Emma Watson (Meg), Florence Pugh (Amy), and Eliza Scanlen (Beth) are a complementary ensemble providing the ideal dose of warmth and laughter.

Timothée Chalamet’s artistic (and adorable) persuasiveness as Laurie make him the only logical casting choice. Meryl Streep’s small role is, however, rather lacklustre, and at times I found myself wondering if I was watching Florence Foster Jenkins.

The structure of the movie shifts between the older and younger incarnations of the characters, smartly exploring the autobiographical elements of the source. The intertwining of biographical detail and fiction makes for a clever, heart-warming finale.

Gerwig creates an immersive cinematic experience, with every shot carefully considered. In many scenes, actors are blocked from the frame and we are forced to see their interactions with other characters and how they play off one another, amplifying the romantic realism. 

Not only is Gerwig’s directing exemplary, but her awareness for the need for a new Little Women adaptation that captures the hearts of a modern audience makes the piece particularly evocative. The warmth of the chaotic plot places the audience at the heart of the conflict and drama.

The Beaver’s Verdict: 

4.3/5

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