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Greta Gerwig brings the classic novel of Louisa May Alcott to life with her interpretation of Little Women. It emerges as a charming, moving and lively portrait of young womanhood and family, complete with an inventively structured narrative and simply stellar performances. You have to see this film it’s as simple as that.

In Concord, Massachusetts, the four March sisters; rule abiding beauty Meg( Emma Watson), boisterous aspiring writer Jo( Saoirse Ronan), painfully shy music lover Beth( Eliza Scanlen) and spoiled, petulant madam Amy( Florence Pugh), grow up with their caring Marmee( Laura Dern) while their father( Bob Odenkirk) is away fighting in the American Civil War. Times are tough and the family are forced to make do without luxuries, but with their closeness and spirit they get through it as best as they can with their warm-hearted and rational mother. Life before them doesn’t really offer many opportunities for women, but feisty Jo is willing to smash those limitations with her writing. Though she’s met with skepticism and even doubts herself, her spirited self won’t rest. She befriends along with her sisters Laurie( Timothée Chalamet); a boy who lives nearby and wants adventure. He in turn likes the feeling of family that the March household has as he finds his Grandfather stern and his life dull. He begins to romantically like Jo, but finds it isn’t always easy in love. Meg is concerned with being a demure lady and has her heart set on a husband and family, preferably with money. She discovers that money isn’t everything when she meets a tutor by the name of John Brooke( James Norton) who doesn’t have a penny. While Meg looks on as other ladies grow in wealth, she only occasionally chafes at it when she realises how good her situation is. Awkward but thoroughly kind-hearted Beth is largely confined to the house as she is shy and prefers to busy herself by playing the piano. Mr Laurence( Chris Cooper) sees this and offers the use of his piano, to the delight of the young girl. Amy, who is often vain and belligerent, aspires to be an artist though she either wants to be “great or nothing”.  The girls endure hardship, sickness in the case of Beth’s bout with Scarlet Fever and their eyes being opened to the world, under the eyes of Marmee and traditional maven Aunt March( Meryl Streep), who enjoys lecturing the family she considers disobedient. The narrative weaves back and forward in time to the American Civil War and the years after it, exploring events in the form of recollection and memory.

With Lady Bird, Greta Gerwig announced herself as a talented director. With Little Women, she makes good on her promise to deliver a timeless story with newfound verve and appeal. As previously stated, the choice to shoot the film in a non-linear fashion is an inspired one. Kudos to Gerwig for using it to create an immediacy with the women at the heart of the story. For instance, we are introduced to the sisters separately rather than the traditional all together round the fireplace that’s shown in more traditional versions. I liked seeing them later on and grown up, before cutting back to their childhoods. It creates a vivid contrast, effortlessly displaying the changes in characters and circumstances through being brightly coloured in cinematography for the portions of childhood and more subdued in the adult sections. It’s a gorgeous visual approach that also supplies us with humour, growth and metaphor. It’s a stroke of intelligence and risk to tell such a well known story in this way, but Greta Gerwig clearly understands what she is doing and the results speak successfully for themselves. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry and you’ll love being in the company of these four memorable ladies. 

Her script is natural and free flowing, with the girl often talking over each other in the cosy home sequences which creates a believable bond as sisters. That’s not to say all the dialogue is like this, in fact it’s very pertinent and acute, but I enjoyed the feeling of sisters having their say in their own way. There is a hustle and bustle to their home life, which marks it in contrast to many a film set in another era that usually feel a bit mannered or overly polite. Little Women has gusto and charm as the sisters fight, rub along together and generally form a feeling go camaraderie the age won’t intrude on. It’s become clear that Gerwig is a fan of exploring young womanhood and family, which was seen in Lady Bird and now in Little Women. And how she examines that even though times have changed, there are still in some places limitations placed on women who want to burst through the glass ceiling. Little Women gets that across with zest and a certain modernity, which thankfully doesn’t put the original story in jeopardy but actually adds to the experience. Alexandre Desplat is a masterful choice for composer as is evidenced by his gorgeous score. Making spirited use of piano along with well timed strings, there is a vibrancy to his music that fits the story perfectly. Seriously, the score should definitely be getting awards notice come that season and I sincerely hope it does.

Saoirse Ronan leads the way with another sterling performance. She gets the unkempt energy, boundless enthusiasm and creeping self-doubt vulnerability just right for Jo. Ronan shows that Jo is often at the mercy of herself and her spirited nature, but how she’s trying to find her own place in the world in a time that isn’t exactly keen on it. Ronan is truly alive here and makes the part of Jo her own, which is saying something as it’s a role that’s been played so many times and can be hard to put your own spin on. Thankfully, Saoirse Ronan is up to the task and splendidly pulls it off much to my delight. Florence Pugh, who is having a banner year so far, closes it off with yet another believable and confident performance. She brings out the bratty and vindictive parts of Amy as a child and her shrewd understanding as an adult. The gifted Pugh gets both ages spot on, charting the rise of a girl whose snooty attitude melts as she learns how to survive in society and play the game better than anyone. I enjoyed how fleshed out Amy was in this version, too often she’s relegated to just being the spoiled one. Yet thankfully, with the script and the luminous Florence Pugh injecting smarts, Amy is given a new lease of life. These two actresses are the main standouts and should both expect award notices, but the rest of the cast is not to be sniffed at either as they fill out the cast of characters with care and skill. Emma Watson has the grace and heart of Meg just right, as she occasionally fails against society but finds that happiness is where romance is at. Some say Meg is the passive part and most traditional of the sisters, but I think that with Watson she emerges with some agency. Eliza Scanlen has the sweet face and  sense of humanity about her that suits Beth and doesn’t make her just a saintly figure. She’s one of the driving forces, particularly in her bond with Jo and Scanlen plays to that with great nuance.

Timothée Chalamet, of floppy hair and eyes that express a lot and most effectively sadness, is ideally cast as Laurie, who comes to be like another member of the March family but who is completely love struck by Jo. He’s spirited and gangly, always moving about and his kinetic behaviour and wearing of emotion on his sleeve ensures Chalamet and Ronan once again prove how effective their chemistry is whenever they are together. Mind you, he has great chemistry with all the women, but in particular Ronan and eventually Pugh. Laura Dern has just the right amount of grit and maternal love as one of the guiding forces for the girl, while Chris Cooper is crusty but mellowed as the neighbour who grows to become close to the March family. Stealing her scenes is the always dependable Meryl Streep, who you can tell had a blast playing the opinionated and cutting Aunt March. She’s a lot of fun to watch as this matron who always has to make a point of something, even if it’s insulting. If there’s a tiny flaw, it’s in that both Bob Odenkirk and James Norton are not given a lot to do. Both are accomplished actors so it would have been nice to have seen them show off some of their talent. But aside from that, I don’t have many quibbles with this movie. Tracy Letts is entertaining in his small but memorable role of publisher who is initially dismissive of Jo, but grows quite fond of her as time goes by.

With Greta Gerwig at the helm, Little Women comes to sparkling life and proves that certain stories can still be fresh no matter how many times it’s been adapted. A winning coming of age story that captures the imagination and heart without resorting to sentimentality, I can’t recommend this version of Little Women highly enough for its energy and splendid cast.