It could be argued, given Little Women’s evergreen popularity, not least as a go-to text for Hollywood adaptations, that Greta Gerwig isn’t exactly stretching herself or giving us a better idea of the kind of directorial career she envisages. Hers is a likeable, intelligent, well-rendered sophomore picture. As such, the awards plaudits are probably no more or less deserving than for your average prestige period piece. Which is to say that Little Women is handsomely mounted and consummately performed (at least, by some of the cast), but it doesn’t absolutely feel like this umpteenth version of Louise May Alcott’s novel demanded to be told, even with the Gerwig’s innovations of experimentation with time frame and metatextual use of its author.
Of course, the only legitimate Hollywood criteria for a retelling is whether or not it will make money, and on that score, Little Women qualifies hands down. And the worst charge one can usually level at the period literary adaptation is that it’s inoffensive: invariably impeccably cast and functionally directed while providing a comfort blanket of familiarity and escapism. The temptation, even or perhaps especially, with creative types who are devotees of the original texts, is to indulge a mix up what they know, offer a different flavour or twist to that familiarity. Armand Iannucci’s colour-blind take on The Personal History of David Copperfield inevitably means that becomes the most high-profile aspect of the film. Gerwig’s choices aren’t ones you’d take away from the trailer, but they are, in their own way, as much of an authorial signature overlaid onto the original author’s signature.
I’ve seen some criticism of the juggled time frames conceit, but for the most part, I think it’s an interesting choice. The worst I could say of it is that there are times, mostly during the first half of the film, when it results in an uncertainty of trajectory, not quite aimlessness but lacking clarity in what it’s supposed to achieve. That’s largely resolved as the picture progresses, and there are certain sequences – the recovery of Beth (Eliza Scanlen) from scarlet fever and the accompanying relief of Jo (Saoirse Ronan) juxtaposed with her death and Jo’s grief – where it feels positively inspired, and more than justifies the risk.
I was more convinced outright where it came to foregrounding of the autobiographical qualities of the book, by which Jo is a stand-in for Alcott and there are significant doubts voiced about the potential of her chick-lit endeavour, until publisher Dashwood (Tracy Letts) receives input from his daughters (which is loosely the case, although he was the one to persuade her to write for girls in the first place). This is followed by Jo haggling with Dashwood over her royalties and sequel rights. My favourite aspect here was the nod to the novel’s unashamed commercial instincts, whereby Dashwood insists that Jo must marry at the end or it stands no chance of capturing the imaginations of its prospective readership.
The picture is, perhaps surprisingly, most variable when it comes to casting, which means a knock-on for the strengths and weaknesses of certain plotlines. On the considerable plus side, Gerwig hits the jackpot reteaming with Ronan for her lead, far more vital and compelling than Winona Ryder in Gillian Armstrong’s 1994 version. She carries you passionately through Jo’s hopes and frustrations for freedom of expression and career, rejecting the traditional and expected support of a husband, both financially and for fulfilment. Just now, it feels as if there are no limits to Ronan’s range, and that an Oscar is only a matter of time.
Florence Pugh – who I’ll readily admit to having been cool on after I saw perhaps too many performative similarities across a couple of her roles – is similarly compelling as would-be professional artist Amy, besotted with neighbour Laurie (Timothee Chalamet), who is himself besotted with Jo, who has rejected his overtures. And both Pugh and Ronan have strong chemistry, often of a combative nature as their characters clash over attitudes and outlook. They also engage spiritedly with Meryl Streep’s old reliable, providing as she does Aunt March’s spinster with a knowing wit.
The aforementioned Letts is also strong, projecting underlying kindness into his officious editorial veneer. Scanlen makes a sympathetic Beth, even if the part is, by its nature, on the thin side. Chris Cooper (the moment where he sits on the stairs to listen to Beth playing is lovely), Bob Odenkirk and Louis Garrel also provide dependable, amiable showings. Of course, next to everyone in this is likeable, or supposed to be likeable, which leads me to…
I’ve expressed reservations about Chalamet before when it comes to playing sympathetic parts, and that’s doubly confirmed here. Laurie is surely supposed to be likeable and charming enough that both Jo and Amy are enamoured of him, but Chalamet brings his usual slightly stiff, suspect quality to the role. There’s no ease or relaxed confidence to his privileged wastrel, which means the scene where he’s allowed to join the sisters’ acting club is absolutely excruciating (just how is it that they’re finding him so amusing, other than his being a boy?) That Christian Bale was more charming and affable is saying something.
I was similarly less than convinced by Laura Dern, who as of writing seems to be a shoe-in for Best Supporting Actress Oscar for Marriage Story. She seems to be struggling to find any warmth in Marmee, and as a consequence, it’s difficult to believe in her children’s or husband’s devotion to her. Emma Watson is utterly flat as Meg, which means that, while John Brooke does his best as her husband, the entire plot strand – one that is particularly pointed with regard to hopes, dreams and expectations and their contrasting realities – rather flounders.
If Gerwig had handled the material with less sureness, these not insignificant shortcomings could easily have torpedoed the entire picture, but she nevertheless manages to ensure Little Women feels quite fresh, aided and abetted by Yorick Le Saux’s (Only Lovers Left Alive) gorgeous cinematography and Alexandre Despat’s sensitive score. I was ready to find Little Women mired in the curse of the period-piece literary adaption – respectability – but it succeeds in overcoming such limitations. That doesn’t mean, however, that it feels like an Oscar winner… any more than any other respectable period-piece literary adaptation. Which is where I came in.