Film Review: Little Women

Rating: 5

Only one woman has ever won an Oscar for Best Director at the Academy Awards. But I fancy Kathryn Bigelow, who won in 2009 for The Hurt Locker, will be joined by Greta Gerwig in 2020, for the beautiful and enjoyable handling of her own adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s 1868 novel.

It’s such a delight in every department, from the wonderful cast to the luminous cinematography, down to Alexandre Desplat’s gorgeous score and the brilliant costumes by Jacqueline Durran.

I mention all of these things because they’re exactly the ingredients that make a great adaptation stand out and allow the big screen to attain the texture and depth of major literature. Gerwig’s film is a real page-turner.

Irish actress Saoirse Ronan is becoming increasingly difficult to rave about, save to say she gets better with every role. Her Jo March is a fabulous creation, finding her own voice through the beating of her own heart and seizing hold of her own destiny and narrative, quite literally, as the film progresses. She’s a thrill to watch, and I can only compare her consistent, natural screen brilliance with that of Meryl Streep, who also stars here, reliably wonderful as the scolding, wealthy Aunt March.

But there are admirable contributions, too, from a brace of British stars – Emma Watson as loving sister Meg, and Florence Pugh as the headstrong Amy – and Timothée Chalamet is coolly dandyish as every sister’s love interest, Laurie.

Despite the seismic American Civil War thundering in the background, Gerwig finds a very 21st-century rhythm and edge to the story and dialogue, with themes concerning money, love, health and career fulfilment. I was reminded of Joe Wright’s lovely version of Pride and Prejudice (on which Durran also muddied up the costumes), yet Gerwig adds another layer of modern self-reflexivity in the final stages, so that the film becomes about the act of creating fiction itself, the act of writing (or painting, acting, filming) and the role these can play in reclaiming and reframing female narratives. 

‘I’m sick of people saying love is all a woman is fit for,’ wails Jo, whose proto-feminism inspires the whole family. However, love is what also pours off the screen, the comforting embrace of a family led by Laura Dern’s caring matriarch, Marmee March. 

Gerwig’s last film was the excellent mother/daughter comedy Lady Bird, but it’s a thrill to witness how this takes things up several notches in terms of skill, wit and emotional intuition. It feels almost effortless as she transports you to the March’s universe, to their house, to their little dramas, dreams and heartbreaks. I found it incredibly charming and sat there, utterly immersed in the film’s world, with a smile on my face and warmth in my heart. It is a total treat and simply perfect. 

On general release on Boxing Day