In Greta Gerwig’s adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s 1868 novel Little Women, die or “get married by the end” are the two options given to aspiring author Josephine “Jo” March (Saoirse Ronan) when negotiating a publishing deal.
You scoff in disbelief at just how preposterous this sounds; a time in history where women were married, and if not, considered non-existent by society. Yet this undercurrent of misogyny, defining the value of a woman’s existence in relation to the men in her life, is as prevalent (and problematic) today in Trump-era politics as it was 150 years ago. And director Greta Gerwig wants you to understand this.
No stranger to profound young-adult parables with literary sensibilities, Gerwig offers with Little Women a challenging look at gender roles that is told through the eyes of the four sisters – Jo (Ronan), Amy (Florence Pugh), Meg (Emma Watson) and Beth (Eliza Scanlen) – and their coming-of-age amidst the American Civil War. Gerwig makes big strides in her attempt to breathe new life into a story that has endured countless television, stage and film adaptations. Impressively, the Lady Bird (2017) filmmaker achieves this by telling the story of Little Women outside of chronological order; an effect that unearths how memories, both beautiful and painful, influence adulthood.
The director avoids convoluting the story of Little Women by studiously adhering to a color scheme that differentiates the multiple time-periods. She depicts the joyfulness of youth in sunny-brightness before closing the blinds on adulthood with darker, muted tones. What Gerwig and cinematographer Yorick Le Saux deliver with Little Women succeeds in constructing a narrative throughline that is told in gorgeous color. Gerwig is a filmmaker inspired by ambitious women. Her characters’ rejection of the middle-class, being in their desperation to leave small-towns in pursuit of art and culture, has become a staple of a deft filmmaker who has championed the female voice. The characterization of this being as evident, and superbly executed in Little Women as it had been so wondrously achieved in Lady Bird.
Unfortunately, Little Women strikes some jarring issues concerning the casting. The twenty-something-year-old women portraying the close-knit sisters prove more convincing in appearance as adults than they do teenagers. That said, the praise directed at Pugh and Ronan, who are tipped to land nods at the Academy Awards, is earned. Pugh and Ronan’s ability to portray the ranging complexities of sisterhood, from loving to resenting, is nothing short of exquisite. While unable to maintain a sense of believability in the film’s portrayal of youth, an act that ought to be credited to Gerwig’s preference for performance over appearance, it is delivered in spades through Jacqueline Durran’s (whose credits include 1917 (2019), Darkest Hour (2017), and Mr. Turner (2014)) impeccable costume design. The grand effect of the film’s fashion, possessing both period and contemporary qualities, succeeding to transport the context of scenes into the present day.
Gerwig earns ethos with her non-judgemental exploration of femininity. While depicting Jo’s pursuit of self-sufficiency as being radical for the time, Gerwig by no means suggests there is one correct way to be a woman. Jo, who rejects the conventions of domesticity and the economic pressures placed on women to find a partner (and heaven forbid marry), conflicts with her sisters’ differing ideologies. The most evident example of this being had with Meg, whose decision to get married and raise a family is Jo’s idea of hell. The difficulty had by Jo to uphold her burning desire for self-reliance conflicts not only with her sisters but with romantic interests. Enter resident dreamboat Laurie (Timothée Chalamet); the James Dean of the American Civil War who enters into a tricky love triangle with the March sisters. Chalamet delivers a fine performance but faces stiff competition standing out amongst the sisters, their loving mother Marmee (Laura Dern) and their acid-tongued Aunt March (Meryl Streep).
Challenging perceptions of agency and gender conventions amidst an America divided, Greta Gerwig’s poignant adaptation of Little Women speaks just as powerfully today as it had in the 19th century.
Emma Watson took over the role of Meg March from Emma Stone, who became unavailable due to scheduling conflicts with promoting The Favourite (2018). Ironically, Stone previously took over the role of Mia in La La Land (2016) after Watson dropped out of the project due to the commitment of her role as Belle in the Disney live-action remake of Beauty and the Beast (2017).