Little Women emancipates Louisa May Alcott’s spirited sisters

Restructuring Alcott’s beloved New England coming-of-age story into layers of memory and nostalgia, Greta Gerwig’s astute adaptation liberates its Civil War-era sisters without taking liberties.

Updated: 10 December 2020

By Nikki Baughan

Emma Watson as Meg March, Florence Pugh as Amy, Saoirse Ronan as Jo and Eliza Scanlen as Beth in Little Women
Sight and Sound

▶︎ Little Women is available on disc and digital download

Spoiler alert: this review reveals a plot twist

That Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women remains such a beloved classic 150 years after it was published is testament not only to her creative vision, but also to her astute exploration of timeless themes. In this big-screen adaptation, writer-director Greta Gerwig presents a faithful adaptation of Alcott’s traditional tale, while also taking care to highlight its progressive views. It’s a commanding blend of the sweetly sentimental and the bitingly political.

In 1860s New England, the four March sisters – Meg (Emma Watson), Jo (Saoirse Ronan), Amy (Florence Pugh) and Beth (Eliza Scanlen) – live with their mother (Laura Dern) in a home that is happy but poor. As they wait for their father (Bob Odenkirk) to return from the Civil War, it is impressed on the girls by society (embodied by Meryl Streep’s gloriously acerbic Aunt March) that, in order to support their family, they must attract rich husbands. That idea doesn’t sit well with any of them. Despite flirting with high society, Meg falls for a man of modest means. Amy struggles to give up her dreams of becoming a successful artist – and is stymied by her secret passion for neighbour Laurie (Timothée Chalamet), who is himself in love with an unsuspecting Jo. As the youngest, Beth prefers to stay at home and play the piano.

It’s the feisty, outspoken Jo who shoulders much of the narrative’s themes. An aspiring writer, she refuses to relinquish her ambition or acquiesce to the submissive femininity that is expected of her. (Not, it should be noted, by her mother and sisters, who embrace Jo’s vibrant personality, nor Laurie, who is drawn to it.) “I’d rather be a free spinster and paddle my own canoe,” she says, pointedly.

Little Women (2019)

Unusually, the film opens with the older Jo pitching her work to a patronising publisher. “If the main character is a girl, make sure she’s either married by the end… or dead,” he says – a portent of things to come. That the film ends with Jo carrying out her own confident negotiations with the same publisher over Little Women, bartering a fair percentage and retaining her copyright, makes for neat thematic bookends.

Indeed, Gerwig’s decision to rework the structure of the novel, bouncing back and forth in time from the girls being engaged together in the innocent pursuits of childhood to facing the realities of adult life separately – Jo as a writer in New York, Meg married with children, Amy on a claustrophobic European tour, Beth facing her own devastating fate – proves a masterstroke. Exceptional work from editor Nick Houy sees similar sequences taking place at different times (walking in snow, repeated conversations) and bleeding into each other, nostalgia and memory twisting the chronology of this familiar story.

Little Women (2019)

In this way, Gerwig focuses on the novel’s key coming-of-age themes rather than individual moments: the loss of childhood, the importance of forging one’s own path, tentative steps towards female emancipation. It is a fresh, dynamic approach that may seem spun from modern feminist thought, but actually makes explicit ideas that Alcott vocally espoused (the line about the canoe, for example, is taken from a letter she wrote to her sister).

Gerwig’s screenplay is well served by the level of craft you’d expect from such a sumptuous adaptation: exquisite production and costume design, from Jess Gonchor and Jacqueline Durran respectively; a rousing Alexandre Desplat score, which blends 19th-century traditions with a modern sensibility; and evocative cinematography from Yorick Le Saux, contrasting the vibrant colours and energetic rush of the sisters’ childhood with the bleaker, more washed-out tones of their older years.

All four leads are excellent, but while Ronan’s firecracker energy often dominates, Pugh quietly steals the show as Amy. Her transition from coquettish, impetuous ingénue to a woman squaring up to her fate becomes apparent in her more measured speech and the dignified, graceful posture that replaces those gangly limbs. Yet Amy never loses her spark. Her late-stage interactions with Laurie, about the unfair treatment of women and her understanding of her own self-worth, beautifully encapsulate the knowing, intelligent, libertarian nature of the character, and the novel she inhabits.

Originally published: 2 January 2020

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