Film Review: Greta Gerwig’s Little Women is a masterful adaptation with a spectacular cast

The amount of film adaptations of Little Women has been vast – the most recent one only came out in 2018 – but the reason this beloved source material is still relevant today is because of how timeless the story is. Despite the period setting, the story shines light on prescient and relevant themes such as young love, sisterhood, gender discrimination, finding one’s place in the world as a woman and family.

But the talent! We have writer/director Greta Gerwig at the helm, who is fresh off her acclaimed directorial debut, Lady Bird. We have young talents including Saoirse Ronan, Timothee Chalamet – both whom are collaborating with Gerwig for the second time – and Florence Pugh – who is having a banner year in 2019 thanks to great films like Midsommar and Fighting With My Family. We also have renowned thespians cast against type including Laura Dern, Chris Cooper, Meryl Streep and Bob Odenkirk; and we have a stellar crew behind the camera including composer Alexandre Desplat, cinematographer Yorick Le Saux, editor Nick Houy and producers Amy Pascal, Denise Di Novi and Robin Swicord – who interesting were producer and screenwriter for the 1994 adaptation by Australian director Gillian Armstrong, respectively.

With all those riches behind the project, will Gerwig beat the notion of the sophomore slump and great a worthy adaptation that will reach audiences today as well as fans of the source material?

In a Wittertainment podcast review by British film critic Mark Kermode of the musical biopic La Vie En Rose, he said that the storytelling for it was not in chronological order, but in the form of an “emotional collage”. Although that term was said in negative ways – in terms of incoherence and hindering the immersive nature of the storytelling — it was a term that nonetheless stuck in this reviewer’s mind. In the case of Gerwig’s Little Women, the final result must have been what “emotional collage” truly meant, since the story is told in terms of timed flashbacks and alternating timeframes that manages to bring a refreshing perspective that accentuates the powerful drama within the source material.

Director Gerwig has said in interviews that she does not like aiming for continuity in her films. Her reason is because there is a certain feeling of imperfection that gives the film an inner life. As for Little Women, the timed flashbacks make thematic sense since the film plays with the concept of memory and how one chooses to remember in terms of both the perspectives of the characters and fans of the novel. The dramatic power can be palpable just from a simple cut from the present to the past, showing the same plot device like a mailbox; playing with the concept of hopeful expectations one yearns for and the grim reality that follows. It is a major credit to Gerwig and editor Nick Houy that the editing makes a true impact to the drama.

The exemplary score by music composer Desplat is emotionally stirring in the best of ways; conveying the joys and hardships of the sisters that can be described as wondrous and magical. The cinematography by Le Saux manages to capture the beauty of the settings with utmost vibrancy. Yet, his work does not evoke the feeling of sterility that most period pieces have. This is due to the emphasis of movement through the ways the shots are framed and blocked i.e. both the action of the actors dancing, running and frolicking gleefully and their inaction through stillness and conflicting inner emotions.

Under Gerwig’s writing and direction, the film also twists the narrative in a slight post-modern metatextual fashion, as the framework of the story is told by Jo, as she is trying to sell the story to a publisher, played with amusing boorishness by Tracy Letts. Through their intense discussions, audience expectations, gender differences, career pressures and attempts to break the norm are discussed in a frank yet funny manner; and can be seen as a viewpoint through the author Alcott herself as well as Gerwig as a writer/director. Yet it also adds credence to the drama via the characterizations; especially in terms of Jo (portrayed brilliantly with passion and intellect by Ronan), as she comes into conflict with herself as she tries to reconcile her best self and her honest self.

Speaking of performances, everyone in the ensemble cast is on point; with no weak links whatsoever. Pugh manages to make the character of Amy more sympathetic than what is written on the page; informing her impulsiveness and jealousy with believable empathy. Chalamet is fantastic as Laurie; bringing to the table a magnetic concoction of rebellion and charisma; informing his character as a man stuck between a rock and a hard place. Emma Watson portrays the good-natured and timid demeanour of Meg beautifully while Eliza Scanlen brings a surprising level of nuance to the character of Beth that makes her stand out more than just a character played out as a plot device.

Supporting actors like Dern, Letts, Streep, Garrel and Norton all hit their mark but the biggest surprise comes from Cooper, who proves that there are no small roles if one put enough effort into it. His amazing performance is the perfect mix of fatherly love and inner sorrow. One of the best scenes in the film involves his character Mr. Laurence – father of Laurie – listening to Beth playing the piano and gradually welling into tears as it reminded him of a lost loved one.

Overall, Little Women proves that Gerwig’s directorial debut Lady Bird was no fluke, firmly confirming that she is a masterful filmmaker; a force to be reckoned with. It shines a new light on a classic story that retains the themes and drama that made it a classic, while telling it in a way that is clever, refreshing and prescient. With strong efforts both in front of and behind the camera, Little Women is one of the best films of 2019.

FIVE STARS (OUT OF FIVE)

Little Women is in cinemas New Years Day

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