Cinema has been a lot this year. We’ve seen Robert Pattinson masturbating furiously in a stinky sea enclave, people burnt alive at a Swedish summer retreat, sad space travel, an imaginary Hitler, doppelganger-horror, pop-terrorism – even a space dungeon with a fuckbox. And so to end the year with quiet naturalism, a U-rated family drama about four sisters and their love for another, could have been anticlimactic. But the stunning performances given by the ensemble cast, coupled with gorgeous cinematography and a brave, heartfelt script, elevate this tale where no other adaptation has before. Never saccharine despite its sugar-sweet premise, I (notoriously stony-faced during many a weepy film) let tears escape from about halfway through, right until the end.
Greta Gerwig was brave to take on a beloved classic novel like Little Women, one that has already seen various successful adaptations with the March sisters having been played by silver-screen stalwarts including Winona Ryder, Maya Hawke, Katherine Hepburn and Elizabeth Taylor. She also had monumental expectation sat on her shoulders, coming off of the critically-praised Lady Bird. I’m delighted to say that any concerns can be put firmly to rest: her take on Little Women has exceeded all expectation and is nothing short of a triumph. Sophomore slump who?
Louisa May Alcott’s original books about the March sisters take place chronologically over two timelines and, like a deftly skilled croupier, Gerwig seamlessly reshuffles the narrative like cards that fall straight into a royal flush. Beginning in a snowy flourish in 1860, four sisters and their mother live in a small Massachusetts village while the family patriarch is away volunteering for Unionists in the Civil War. Though obviously older than the ages they are meant to be portraying, the four sisters – Jo (Saoirse Ronan), Meg (Emma Watson), Beth (Eliza Scanlen) and Amy (Florence Pugh) – are the cornerstones of the whole film, imbuing such warmth and love into the screen that every problem that was introduced to any character felt like a brutal, heartbreaking affront. Finishing each other’s sentences and yabbing over each other like a gloriously dissonant melody, Gerwig skilfully draws us into the sisters’ lives in a way that felt organic and imperative, with the narrative jumps only heightening the importance of theme over narrative. The gentle unfurling of the tale was so masterful and involving it felt like each audience member had a seat around the March dinner table – cosy, hospitable, loving.
Our four sisters are not perfect, neither in the ‘early’ timeline – where Amy is 12, Beth is 13, Jo is 15 and Meg is 16 – nor in the ‘later’ timeline, seven years later. Meg (a perfectly respectable performance from the often unfairly-hated-on Emma Watson) remains vain and dissatisfied, wanting finery despite her loving husband’s financial struggles. Jo is stubborn as an old goat. Amy’s selfish burning of her sister’s beloved novel is still met with a sour taste in the mouth. But I’ve never known such love to be shown onscreen: it pours out of Laura Dern’s gentle embrace, Saoirse Ronan’s desperately fierce bedside hand-squeezing, Florence Pugh’s impossibly large grin.
Fans of Timothée Chalamet will be thrilled to know that, as Laurie, he completely reinvents the part – and his adversaries will be left struggling to pick fault, in my opinion. Previously portrayed like a fawning dog to Jo, Gerwig’s Laurie is both flawed yet a challenge to the sisters: yes, he goes through some self-involved woe-is-me behaviour after being rejected by the girl he likes, but he also challenges Jo, is completely in love with the four sisters, and is drawn to their warmth like a moth to flame. Chalamet completely transforms this character that has potential to be one-dimensional, lighting every scene he is in with his foppish charm, Byronesque locks and devastating smile: all at once soft, sly, childish, brave and worldly. Similarly, fans of Louis Garrel and his devastatingly cinematic face will have plenty to enjoy here.
Little Women isn’t about putting two fingers up to institutional traditions like marriage, or love, or domesticity, in favour of running off to be independent. It’s about letting women be. Letting women do whatever the fuck they want, whether it’s painting in Paris, getting married and being a stay-at-home mother, or rejecting Timothée Chalamet (bonkers, I know). “Timeless” is not necessarily “overdone,” or “stale,” or “boring.” Little Women’s timeless charm is universal, urgent, and nestles right inside the crevices in our hearts we didn’t know we needed filling. I love Amy, Jo, Beth and Meg–though, despite their constant self-diagnosis of being “poor”, they certainly dress well.
Words by Steph Green