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Review: Little Women

December 25, 2019

By John Corrado

★★★★ (out of 4)

Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, a semi autobiographical book about four sisters growing up in New England during the Civil War, was initially published in the late 1860s, and it has been adapted for the screen multiple times since then.

Perhaps the most famous of these adaptations include George Cukor’s version in 1933 with Katherine Hepburn in the leading role of the tomboyish Jo March, and Gillian Armstrong’s fan favourite 1994 adaptation starring a young Winona Ryder in the role, who received an Oscar nomination for her portrayal.

Now the classic book has gotten a fresh adaptation courtesy of multihyphenate filmmaker Greta Gerwig, who is riding high after her critically acclaimed solo directorial debut Lady Bird. The film reunites Gerwig with her Lady Bird star Saoirse Ronan, who does an excellent job of taking on the role of Jo, and the result is a wonderful film that works as both a sincere adaptation and a deconstruction of Louisa May Alcott’s book. Gerwig manages to remain true to the source material while also bringing her own distinctive voice as an artist to it, which is no small feat.

Right off the bat, one of the most radical choices that Gerwig has made is to assemble the film out of order, taking a fractured narrative approach to telling this story by starting it with the sisters as adults having all gone their separate ways and showing their coming of age in flashbacks. The film opens with Jo March (Ronan) already living in New York, trying to sell short stories to a publisher, Mr. Dashwood (Tracy Letts), who is reluctant to publish the work of a young lady. Amy (Florence Pugh) is in Europe with their rich aunt (Meryl Streep), Meg (Emma Watson) stayed in town to get married and have a family, and youngest sister Beth (Eliza Scanlen) is still at home, her fragile health waning.

Through Jo’s memories to seven years earlier, we see the March sisters being raised by their mother, Marmee (Laura Dern), with their father, Mr. March (Bob Odenkirk), off volunteering for the Union Army. Despite not having much money of their own, their mother instills in them the importance of doing kind things for others, including giving their Christmas breakfast to a poor family who live near them in a shack in the woods, in one touching sequence. It’s here that we get to see the sisters getting into mischief, putting on plays, and becoming friends with Theodore “Laurie” Laurence (Timothée Chalamet), the fun-loving grandson of their rich neighbour Mr. Laurence (Chris Cooper).

We also get to see the clashes between the independent Jo and the more dependent Amy. Jo likes to do things for herself and has no real desire to get married, even voicing her displeasure at one point about having been born a girl because it means that she can’t fight in the war, where as Amy is honest about her hopes to marry a rich man who can support her. Despite Laurie’s romantic interest in her, and the fact that they get along incredibly well, Jo views him as simply her best friend. These themes about women wanting to make their own way in the world and not have to rely upon men, which were groundbreaking for the 1800s, retain their relevance now.

This is a period piece that feels at once true to its time as well as distinctly modern. Cinematographer Yorick Le Saux works with a lot of natural light, modelling the look of the film after paintings from the era, and it has a visual brightness that makes it stand out from other period pieces. The production design, sets and costumes are all exceptional, and composer Alexandre Desplat contributes a lovely musical score to the film that is classical with a slight contemporary flair. The film is also impeccably well cast, with a great ensemble of actors who all fill out these roles perfectly.

Ronan continues to show off her impressive range and versatility as an actress, and she is brilliant in both the dramatic and more playful moments that the film offers her. Chalamet delivers a charming portrayal of Laurie, and him and Ronan have wonderful chemistry together, as we already know from Lady Bird. Pugh continues to dominate following her powerhouse performance in Midsommar earlier this year, bringing a sympathetic edge to her portrayal of Amy, whose immaturity causes her to do some unlikeable things, and imbuing the character with a good deal of depth and nuance.

One of the best surprises about Greta Gerwig’s Little Women is how delightful the film often is, and I was smiling throughout much of it. There is a buoyancy to the film, which is elevated by the great and often playful chemistry between the actors, but Gerwig also ensures that the emotional weight of the story is still very much present in this version. Entertaining, deeply felt, and engaging throughout its over two hour running time, Gerwig has made something that should please both those who are looking for a new version of this classic story as well as fans of her work.

Little Women opens today in theatres across Canada.

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