Review: Little Women

Greta Gerwig’s adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s novel is, among many things, a superb act of criticism. Where the novel itself and its previous adaptations (cinematic, televisual) begin with Meet Me In St. Louis-style familial contentment, with ironies and arguments to be contended with along the way, eventually succumb to life’s dissolutions and separations until the characters forge their own routes in the world, Gerwig’s film moves to a different, more fluid and interlocking, rhythm. Gerwig starts near the end, with Jo March (Saoirse Ronan) living alone and eking out a living as a writer and tutor in New York. Her sisters are far away, to varying degrees of distance and sympathy: Meg (Emma Watson) is living impecuniously with her husband, John, a good-natured tutor; Amy (Florence Pugh) is in France trying to hone her talent in painting, studying the impressionists while managing the temperament of her forthright Aunt March (Meryl Streep); and Beth (Eliza Scanlon) lives in the family home in Concord, Massachusetts, with Marmee (Laura Dern), still unrecovered from contracting scarlet fever. Gerwig’s narrative leaps between the character’s lives, alighting at moments that draw thematic parallels between past and present: Gerwig begins with the characters apart, and through the intelligent labyrinths she constructs, brings them back together again. Consistent with Lady Bird, Little Women is a film about a woman growing up, who must interact with the world at a different speed, but who doesn’t want to relinquish her connection to the place she came from and the life she led there. It’s gaspingly beautiful: Yorick Le Saux’s cinematography manages to keep the lighting schemes in tact despite the at times frenetic movement of the characters. About which: the frame rate slows at crucial moments in the early sections of the film, after Jo sells a story to her officious and sarcastic editor (played by Tracy Letts), she runs down the street, and as the world slows with Jo at its centre, Gerwig italicises her triumph; similarly, when Amy in her carriage spots Laurie (Timothée Chalamet) striding through Paris, no one and nothing is moving at its right pace, and it seems to unlock Amy’s affection for him. (I also love the direct-to-camera epistolary addresses.) Nick Houy’s editing structure keeps the film’s different time periods legible and sensible, emphasising Gerwig’s ingenious navigation between the story’s inlets and tributaries. There are too many performances to examine any of them in much detail, so it’ll suffice to say Pugh, Ronan, Dern, Scanlon, and Chris Cooper provide much of the best acting between them. Gerwig’s solution to the ending of Little Women, which has long troubled readers, is a matter of casting: Louis Garrel plays Professor Bhaer, usually older and bearded and stuffy, here closer in age to Jo, French, and gorgeous. But Gerwig’s whirligig ending plays with this even more, by making a conversation about the ending of the book Jo has written apply to the ending of the film. That conservatism lurks within this vision of sisterly solidarity is inevitable, but what wasn’t inevitable—and seems all the more admirable because of this—is the film’s euphony.

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