By Laurie Coker
Director Gretta Gerwig has a knack for capturing the essence of women – beyond femininity and frills. In Little Women, the beloved novel by Louisa May Alcott, the titular women are vivid and beautiful, and their story has seen many film adaptations. Gerwig’s version has a current feel and while she stays true to the crux of the story, she shifts the trims the tale, tweaks the timeline and adjusts the characters’ weight, and presents a vibrantly watchable and timely story. A solid cast of powerful and talented women and men afford Gerwig the opportunity to create an adaptation that Alcott would likely love.
The “little women in Alcott’s semi-autobiographical telling are Meg (Emma Watson), Jo (Saoirse Ronan), Amy (Florence Pugh), and Beth (Eliza Scanlen) – the March sisters. Their mother, Marmee (Laura Dern), holds down the homestead while their father fights for the Union Army. Instead of choosing to stay demure and quite the girls carve their own distinct ways – maneuvering men, money and more.
Gerwig’s vision shows her love of the source material and she gives a notable nod at the beginning of the film – a shot of a red bound book with the title and Alcott’s name. Each scene is precise and vivid, no angle or word is wasted and the cast glides in and out of the shots like skaters on a rink. Gerwig slips between past and present smoothly noting events through Jo’s vantage all the while affording the others their stories. They are family and we are part of their experiences as sympathetic bystanders – all thanks to Gerwig’s keen eye.
Ronan carries her characters on strong shoulders and Watson, Pugh and Scanlen are gifted actors – each fully-realizing their roles, and giving the sisters dimension and weight. Alcott’s timeless tale is made all the more engaging with this director and these stars. The men are no slouches either – Chris Cooper (Mr. Lawrence), Timothée Chalamet (Laurie), James Norton (John Brooke), and Louis Garrel (Friedrich Bhaer) – all are men who ride in the wake of the March girls’ beauty and vigor. Dern’s Marmee provides an ideal role model for the girls. With a husband at war, she must guide her daughters in all things personal and worldly and under Gerwig’s grace-filled guidance, the relationships delight.
True to Alcott’s story, Gerwig reminds us that love played a but a small part in the life of women then. Instead, they were expected to marry well, securing their future and fulfilling their lives as wives and mothers. Gerwig has a gift, proven in her previous directorial efforts and driven home by the mastery shown in Little Women, which earns an A+ in the grade book. Certain to end up a holiday favorite, Little Women, deserves accolades.