Little Women review – the freshest literary adaptation of the year

Greta Gerwig brings the entire March family to life like never before in a respectful but bracingly current version that couldn’t be more perfectly timed

One-hundred-and-fifty-year-old literature never felt so alive. Greta Gerwig’s jostling, clamouring adaptation of Little Women is a rare achievement. Gerwig is respectful of the source material – much of the dialogue is lifted from Louisa May Alcott’s beloved book – while ensuring that her own creative input is heard. By encouraging a merry chaos of overlapping personalities and performances – restructuring the timeline into a multilayered playground where the child and adult stories interact – and subtly foregrounding existing themes of female fulfilment and the economics of creativity, Gerwig creates something that is true to its roots and bracingly current. Along with Armando Iannucci’s archly playful take on David Copperfield, this is the freshest, most light-footed literary adaptation of the past year.

There’s a reason why Little Women, in print continuously since its first volume was published in 1868, has been such an enduring phenomenon, and that is Jo March. She’s passionately captured here by Saoirse Ronan, who reunites with Gerwig after starring in her directorial debut, Lady Bird (a film that, with its focus on mother-daughter relationships, female friendship and creative ambition, contains a notable thematic crossover with Little Women). Wildly imaginative, unfashionably ambitious and mutinously ungroomed, she has been the formative girl-crush for generations of wannabe writers with inky fingers and unravelling pigtails. Alcott’s alter ego, Jo hits that elusive sweet spot that makes her perennially relatable and contemporary.

It was her love affair with Jo as a character that prompted Gerwig to embark on this, the latest interpretation of a book that has already been adapted for the screen, stage, television, opera and anime about 20 times. But it is the generosity of Gerwig’s affections, drawing the other members of the family, and Alcott herself, into the warm embrace of the film, that makes it such a joyous, tumultuous collision of pleasures.

Saoirse Ronan and Timothée Chalamet in Little Women.
Outstanding… Saoirse Ronan and Timothée Chalamet in Little Women. Photograph: Allstar/Columbia Pictures

Alcott is inevitably present in any adaptation of Little Women but Gerwig digs deeper, into the novelist’s own history. The film is shot in and around Concord, Massachusetts, where Alcott and her family lived. Gerwig draws on the geography of the region: the vividly exuberant New England autumn colour palette flushes through the childhood scenes; the modest gentility of Alcott’s own childhood home is recreated for the March family residence.

Perhaps most satisfying is a deftly meta scene that addresses the point at which Alcott’s life – she remained unmarried – and Jo’s (wed to an older professor) diverge. Gerwig acknowledges the commercial pressure to marry off a fictional female character, and argues that the real happy ending is the publishing of Jo’s book. That said, by casting Louis Garrel as Friedrich Bhaer, Gerwig ensures that Jo is not exactly short-changed in the husband department.

In addition to Alcott, the main beneficiary of Gerwig’s inclusive approach is the youngest March sister, Amy (a magnificent Florence Pugh – what a year she has had!). While other versions of the story have painted her as bratty and spoiled, here Amy and Jo are two sides of the same coin. The brightest, most talented, most headstrong of the girls, and given to unleashing rollicking hoots of laughter at each other’s misfortune, they clash because their kinship is closer than they care to admit. At times, it seems as though this is as much Amy’s story as Jo’s. Her burgeoning relationship with Laurie (Timothée Chalamet, adorable) is teasingly persuasive: Pugh’s velvet and honey voice has never been better used. Yorick Le Saux’s camera clearly feels the same way – it is constantly sneaking smitten glances at Amy across crowded rooms. More than Emma Watson’s decorative, dull Meg and Eliza Scanlen’s sickly, reticent Beth, our eyes are drawn to Pugh’s mercurial Amy.

And it’s in these chaotic rooms in the March family home that the film derives its giddy energy. Gerwig’s masterstroke is to take the dialogue as it was written by Alcott but to have her actors deliver the lines in a tumbling clutter of ideas and mass hilarity. There’s an uninhibited verve here that evokes Joe Wright’s Pride & Prejudice.

Alexandre Desplat’s unremarkable mulch of a score – one of the film’s few weak points – does little more than provide decorative wallpaper for the bustle of family life. But the design departments, both in the interiors and the costumes, excel. Laura Dern’s Marmee raises her girls in a magpie stash of bohemian jumble, punctuated with impromptu midnight baking sessions and amateur dramatics. It’s a home that radiates warmth, and not just because Gerwig borrows a trick from Tom Ford’s A Single Man, flooding the frame with lush, saturated glow at moments of joy. The home is a crucial element in Little Women. It’s not Jo’s escape to New York that allows her to find her creative voice, but her return to the heart of the family. And if that’s not the perfect sentiment for holiday viewing, I don’t know what is.

Watch a trailer for Little Women.


Wendy Ide

The GuardianTramp

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