Not many filmmakers could make the eighth film adaptation of a Victorian novel into a cinematic event, but that’s exactly the sort of cachet Greta Gerwig is working with following her universally beloved debut, Lady Bird. As good as her first film is, though, Little Women represents a substantial step up. This is a wonderful, joyous experience, a cosy Christmas Eve in movie form, so full of goodness and spark that you’ll want to roll it again the second it ends. Astonishingly well acted and ambitiously directed, Little Women is a triumph that proves Gerwig as a truly thrilling filmmaker.
Louisa May Alcott’s tale of the four March sisters – Jo (Saoirse Ronan), Amy (Florence Pugh), Meg (Emma Watson), and Beth (Eliza Scanlen) – and their journeys through hardships and romances in 1860s America, is well-worn by this point, but Gerwig finds a way to make it fresh. She takes the linear structure of the novel and chops it up, flashing back and forward through time. It’s a superb choice, and one that is brilliantly intuitive in practice, creating a depth and three-dimensionality to the characters with remarkable efficiency.
This depth is jumped on by the cast, all of whom provide amazing performances. Ronan is a fiercely compelling lead, always the smartest person in the room, but conflicted and deeply melancholy, while Watson is luminous in her best role to date. An absurdly stacked supporting cast, from Laura Dern to Meryl Streep to Chris Cooper, all add gravitas to the film and a sense of lived-in history to its world. Yet, it’s Pugh and Timothee Chalamet (as love interest and all-round charmer Teddy Laurence) who truly own the film. They are both take-the-air-from-your-lungs astonishing. These young actors have just jumped from strength to strength in recent years, and Little Women is both the culmination of that and surely a springboard to even more wildly impressive careers going forward.
Every moment with them, from Pugh’s childish impudence that masks very real pain to Chalamet’s pitch-perfect use of movement and body language (practically dancing along to Alexandre Desplat’s twinkling score), is gripping, and Gerwig doesn’t put a foot wrong in her use of her cast. Her visual direction is also incredible, capturing the chaos and movement of a busy house in a way that is comfortingly immersive without ever falling prey to being disorienting. Dances thunder across the screen with giddy pace and excitement, and Gerwig and DOP Yorick Le Saux bring vibrancy and life to every location.
The script is funny and sweet and deeply moving, wringing drama and emotion out of a story that never needs to be nasty to be effective. There are tragedies and strife, but Gerwig populates her film with characters who are simply good, or at least trying to be. To not only make this grace and kindness exciting but also to make these idyllic characters into relatable figures is a monumental feat. Little Women is a film with a genuinely hopeful worldview – albeit one that may ring as a little traditionalist at points – that things can and will work out if enough love and care is put into them.
This love saturates every frame, filling the countryside with colour and the city with bustling opportunity. Entirely family friendly without ever feeling like it has to restrict itself, Little Women is a perfect Christmas-time outing to the cinema. Gratitude, kindness, sincerity, and a gentle sadness that allows you to better appreciate the good of life are hard things to find and hold on to. What a gift, then, that Little Women brings, able to give you all these feelings for two heart-filling hours. It’s a film you’ll love the first time round and long to return to again and again.