Little Women movie review: Louisa M Alcott’s heart meets Greta Gerwig’s genius in a warm, welcome adaptation of a classic

Updated on Feb 07, 2020 12:58 PM IST

Little Women movie review: Greta Gerwig brings back Louisa M Alcott’s classic to the big screen with Soaise Ronan, Emma Watson. It’s a film so different from the source and yet so close to the heart of it.

Little Women movie review: The film is warm at its core with genius written in every frame.
Little Women movie review: The film is warm at its core with genius written in every frame.
Hindustan Times, New Delhi | By

Little Women
Director: Greta Gerwig
Cast: Saoirse Ronan, Emma Watson, Florence Pugh, Eliza Scanlen, Laura Dern, Timothee Chalamet

Soon after the Academy released its list of nominees for 2020, many flocked online to express disappointment at the snub to Little Women director, Greta Gerwig. The film got nods in almost all major categories including Best Picture, Actress, Supporting Actress and Adapted Screenplay but Gerwig’s absence pinched a lot in the all-male director’s category. Then I came across a tweet -- “Well who’d you take out of this list to fit Greta?”

And it made a lot of sense. You surely can’t take this away from Bong Joon Ho (Parasite) or Martin Scorsese (The Irishman). There is no way Todd Phillips (Joker) and Quentin Tarantino (Once Upon A Time in Hollywood) shouldn’t be on the list and if nothing else, this is the year of Sam Mendes (1917). But having finally watched Little Women, I must say that this was the year to introduce a sixth nominee.

Watch the trailer for Little Women:  

What Gerwig has achieved with her film is second to none of the men’s works listed above. A stunning and still-so-relevant adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s classic, Little Women is warm at its core and has genius written on its every frame. Gerwig had proved herself to be a talented storyteller with her last film (Lady Bird) and this time, she shows you how she can bring out the colour and the tragedy in another writer’s work as well.

Written by Alcott in 1868, Little Women has been adapted to screen multiple times (my favourite version of it is still the animated series that I’d watch with my brother after school on Animax). One of the first books I ever read, it is also among my most beloved. Alcott tells of the four young March sisters Meg (Emma Watson), Jo (Saoirse Ronan), Beth (Eliza Scanlen) and Amy (Florence Pugh) who live in genteel poverty with their mother (Laura Dern) in 19th century America while their father is drafted in the Civil War. There’s also the rich neighbours’ lonely orphan boy Laurie (Timothee Chalamet) who forms a friendship with the girls.

Saoirse Ronan in Little Women.
Saoirse Ronan in Little Women.

While many have long thought of Little Women as a childish, frothy piece meant for young girls and therefore undeserving of serious consideration, a thorough reading would prove how much more it has to offer. Alcott, in her semi-autobiographical novel, brought forth ideas of sorority, life as a middle class American during a debilitating war and most excellently, the female experience. She wrote of their sacrifices and helplessness in the face of patriarchal, wedding-hungry world and also of their ambition and the artistic struggle.

While these themes ran as the undercurrent in Alcott’s work, Gerwig makes sure they shine through in the film. Especially in the final minutes when she decides to break away from source material like Alcott would have actually liked and preferred. While the episodes from the story are still much the same, Gerwig’s decision to completely alter the chronology of events brings an unexpected depth and poetry to the film. We do not meet the March sisters in their home on Christmas Eve as children but as grown women running their own lives and households. Jo is outside a New York publisher’s office to sell more pulpy, soulless stories, Meg is being seduced into buying silk that her husband cannot afford, Beth’s knocking on death’s door and Amy is in France with Aunt March taking painting lessons and trying to woo rich men into convenient marriages.

Timothee Chalamet and Florence Pugh in a still from Little Women.
Timothee Chalamet and Florence Pugh in a still from Little Women.

The childhood is revisited through precisely placed flashbacks that always have a connection with the now. Jo’s cheap romantic stories once used to be lovely home-produced plays that she would perform with her sisters. Meg may be discontent with her life in poverty now but once she’d wear ill-fitting shoes and old dresses to parties and still enjoy her night. Beth who was once full of hope and desire to stay with her family forever, has now accepted her imminent death. And Amy, the one character who benefits the most with Gerwig’s intervention, was once a jealous, self-important young girl who has now realised loveless marriages are her best hope for the survival of her family.

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The film goes back and forth in between the two timelines in larger chunks in the beginning. But as one goes deeper into the story, the switch gets quicker, becoming a gorgeous duet between the sisters’ lives as women and girls. Although, it could get tricky to keep if you aren’t familiar with the story.

Emma Watson, Saoirse Ronan, Florence Pugh and Eliza Scanlen in Little Women.
Emma Watson, Saoirse Ronan, Florence Pugh and Eliza Scanlen in Little Women.

Now the switches and the juxtaposition would have all fallen apart if not for the talents of the half a dozen actors that the film boasts of. Ronan has been a masterclass in acting ever since Atonement; in Little Women, she swims seamlessly between the feminist writer and the lonely woman in need of love. She is the leader of this bunch and a worthy one who can be offended, playful, raging, sorrowful, heartbreaking and heartbroken equally well. Watson, being cursed with the good and sweet Meg, finds little challenge in her part. Gerwig uses Meg largely to shed light on the less than bountiful financials of the family. She is the one lusting after silk dresses, married to a penniless tutor for love.

Scanlen as Beth gets a few moments of her own. In one, she is sitting by the beach with Jo, talking death with the wisdom of a person who has seen enough pain. In another, she establishes herself as the child of the family, feeding soup to her dolls on the dinner table. It could give creepy flashbacks to Sharp Objects fans but Scanlen makes sure all that follows warms you up to the sweet and innocent Beth.

Emma Watson as Meg in Little Women.
Emma Watson as Meg in Little Women.

And I save the best for the last. Pugh is all Hollywood can talk about lately after Midsommar and Lady Macbeth and watch me join the wagon. She is unbelievable as she transitions from the most childish of the sisters to the wisest. Her mature, womanly voice could have caused trouble in the portrayal of Amy but with her stomping feet and her Regina George face, Pugh manages it like cakewalk. As the older Amy, she shows the self doubt of a defeated artist and the pain of unrequited love in scenes with Chalamet, towering over him at all times. And I adore Chalamet.

Gerwig’s film is one of the warmest, most intelligently made films of this year. Powered by gorgeous performances and aided along by the 19th century charm of cottages, big skirts, carriages, grand pianos and Alexander Desplat’s lovely score, it’s the one film no one should miss, whether you are a little girl, young woman or a grown man.

(Hindustan Times doesn’t use star-rating system in its film and television reviews.)

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    Soumya Srivastava is Entertainment Editor at Hindustan Times. She writes about movies and TV because what else is there to life anyway.

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