Little Women (2020)

There’s a lot of expectation for Greta Gerwig’s follow up to the critically acclaimed, brilliant Lady Bird (2017). There’s also some trepidation, as Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women is not only a beloved classic novel, but has had numerous film and TV adaptations, some of which hold fond places in the public’s hearts. Now, there’s bad news for some (like those who will never accept any Jo other than Winona Ryder), good news for most: this retelling has got to be the best.

It’s not just that the central cast, especially Saoirse Ronan, Florence Pugh, and Timothèe Chalamet, are so good they make Meryl Streep (Aunt March) look unremarkable. It’s that Gerwig makes the story work. The problem with Little Women has always been that it is segmented into two halves. In the first, we have built the expectation that Jo (Ronan) will marry best friend Laurie (Chalamet), then when she shockingly turns him down, we follow her budding career as a writer, and her romance with the comparatively bland Professor Bhaer, a new entry to the story. The plot can lose its momentum, and it is hard not to be disappointed by the ending, when so much has been invested into growing to love this cosy domestic setting and its characters.

Gerwig solves it through non-linear structure. We have a present timeline (the traditional second act) and a past (the first act), which we flash back to in order to comment on the present. It works perfectly, helping to explain and justify future events by planting seeds in the past. Gerwig also uses repetition to build and subvert expectations. Jo wakes with a close up on the eyes one past morning to a joyful revelation, then in another scene wakes to a very different one. The shots are similar, but the past is bright, rosy and full of possibilities, whereas the present is shrouded in gloom. In her storytelling, Gerwig’s comparisons create sad irony.

Gerwig’s structure makes us perfectly ready for a very satisfying conclusion. Every character is developed, with moments that illuminate, say, Meg’s (Emma Watson) married life in ways the 1994 Gillian Armstrong film didn’t. Meg and her husband married for love and are very poor, whereas Amy (Pugh) is quite frank (and reasonable) about her desire to marry for money. In addition to ideas of class and poverty, Little Women also takes time to develop its feminist themes, with a number of characters touching on the simple fact of this being a man’s world, in which women are simply objects expected to complete the fullness of a person’s manhood. Most effective here is that this movie is framed as really being about Jo’s path to fully-formed independence. Her romance with Laurie or Bhaer are important, but not central aspects of this growth.

Though this is a melodrama, with some sad moments, Little Women is light on its feet. It is frequently funny, charming and heart-warming, and though it has ideas, it never becomes preachy. It is never about anything other than the journey to adulthood of four sweet, clever young women, and in this sweeping, musical, romantic and grounded retelling, it is a delight to travel with them.

Little Women is in cinemas on New Year’s Day.

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