There have many adaptations of Little Women over the years from Louisa May Alcott’s novel – many believed they’d seen it all – but alas, here we stand, steadfast into 2020 and with an adaptation that doesn’t kill your soul like your typical Hollywood remake. Director Greta Gerwig drags the conventional plot of your typical period-drama by its heels and restores it with a fresh perspective. Little Women follows the story of the March sisters, an eclectic group of sisters all aiming to find their own sense of self.
What remains potent in this retelling of a classic novel is that Greta Gerwig intends to broadcast female author Louisa May Alcott’s message loud and clear, furthermore, she intends to take it a step further; by use of editing. Making use of Louisa May Alcott’s life and the novel Little Women itself to seemingly merge the narrative into one. We are met with an intricately edited non-linear narrative perspective of the base story, like a novel with pages added and rearranged with systematic precision so that it just works. If you’re still struggling to see the significance of what Gerwig has done here, think of the story of Romeo and Juliet; now imagine if a director rearranged that story so that the death of Romeo was shown towards the beginning of the story – but somehow, the story was equally, if not more impactful as a result. That is the scale of rearrangement that Gerwig has done here.
For many, Little Women is a story about family, identity, and a great many other things – however, capturing the homely sisterhood between the March girls was paramount. These girls must be rife with laughing, gossip, arguments and a deep love for one another, they must stand together as a believable family but stand far away enough so that they each have their own identity. Gerwig channels the compassion that comes so easily to her into these characters; forming a hearth so that even the coldest hearted movie-goers feel its warmth. Gerwig quite literally breathes new life into every facet of this story.
On a narrative level, everything is done with precision. We needn’t even require much convincing that these girls are sisters, as the glow that surrounds their conversations and interactions provide enough substance to immediately convince you. Standout performances by Saoirse Ronan as Jo and Florence Pugh as Amy are the glue that bind these sisters together and the wedge that drive them apart. Florence portrays Amy with an exceptional sense of humanity and at times Amy can even be a mean-spirited and abrasive person – Florence has gained near full control over her range of emotions as an actress, her role here is evidence of that. Saoirse portrays the character of Jo; she is compassionate, naive, but contains full autonomy in what she wants – though she has less bite than her novel counterpart her inner flame is equally as bright. Emma Watson as Meg was this films Achilles heel, she feels muted and ultimately struggles to adopt the American accent with much sense of conviction. Issues also arise with the character of Laurie played by Timothée Chalamet, as his characters existence often feels like his sole purpose is to sow conflict between the sisters in order to mechanize the story forward. We learn little of his backstory, desires, or why he cares so much about the March girls, making him feel less human than the characters this film solely follows.
Greta Gerwig continues to improve her ability on a technical level. This is quickly demonstrated as the film opens up with Saoirse Ronan running through the streets of New York City as the camera beautifully follows her. The camera is used to capture the intimacy between characters and is shot in 35mm film gives it a nice grainy texture. Gerwig and cinematographer Yorick Le Saux use colour palettes to distinguish the different time periods to avoid any confusion that might transpire. These colours palettes switch between autumnal-rich hues to cold-blues – these are used in a way to support the emotion in significant scenes.
Costume designer Jacqueline Durran use beautifully designed costumes that capture the 1860s New England time period. Costumes are very effective in this movie as they help establish the identity of each sister, as they each have defining looks. The production design is also used effectively to create the incredibly detailed settings that capture the time period and also used in a way to show economic disparity. Alexandre Desplat once again composes one of the best scores of the year that embraces the classical side of it and injects modernity in the music. The score uses piano and strings for the majority of its pieces in a way that charges every scene with emotion and energy.
Gerwig has not only successfully adapted the novel here, she has extended it into something new, dare I say, more? She has twisted the material so that now we see and feel more connected than ever before. Little Women, if anything, stands as an example of the power of editing on an already existing story. With the warm charm of any great period-drama, Gretta Gerwig’s Little Women provides a hopeful yet lamentful meditation on choice – who we are, and what we decide to become.