This was a genuinely joyous experience.
For a story that is so heavily dependant upon the central characters, any filmic adaptation is shot from the start if we as an audience can’t grow to care for the March girls and be moved by their lives. Even more so since these are some of the most iconic and adored figures in literature; if the characters are miscast, the best script in the world won’t save it.
Luckily, Greta Gerwig has cast not only the March girls (with one unfortunate exception) but the entire array of supporting characters impeccably and matched them with a screenplay that manages to respect the original classic but also incorporates a modern and refreshing angle. I’m not the biggest fan of stuffy period dramas, especially if they’re strictly and rigidly adherent to the source material without taking into account the values and themes of the times. Gerwig has subverted the genre so beautifully; the dialogue is still very typical of the 18th century, but the pacing and timing is much more consistent and identifiable with modern audiences. This is especially the case with regard to the surprising comedic streak throughout the film, the banter in that little family is rapid fire and cutting and genuinely funny.
The story follows the lives of the four March sisters Jo (Saiorse Ronan), Meg (Emma Watson), Amy (Florence Pugh) and Beth (Eliza Scanlen) as they grow from adolescent girls to grown women and their joys and sorrows along the way. The film jumps back and forth through periods in the girls’ life, which was a clever twist on the classic and a nice way to distinguish it from other adaptations, but also contrasts the times of happiness and tragedy beautifully. The chemistry and sense of sisterhood between the four girls is irresistible, and Gerwig has done well not to sugar coat or sweeten the rivalries and jealousies between them; when Amy burns Jo’s manuscript, you can see the palpable hatred that somehow can only be triggered between siblings.
Saiorse Ronan is sensational as Jo and brings a definite vulnerability and complexity to the role which I don’t think many other actresses could have done; Ronan’s Jo is opinionated yet lonely, fiercely independent yet longing for love like her sisters. At times I did find that there wasn’t a great deal of distinction between her performance as a teenager and as a grown woman. But when she’s on, holy dooly is she on, particularly in one scene between Jo and her mother (Laura Dern) in which she laments the role of women in her world being reduced to objects of love and prettiness, but that she’s lonely and has pushed away her chances for love in her pursuit of independence.
As good as Ronan is though, for me the knock out star of this film was Florence Pugh as Amy; there’s a difference between being a good actor and having that distinct sense of Hollywood star power and she’s got it in spades. I think out of everyone in the film, she was the one that properly embodied her character and did so with such unbelievable range, well warranting her Best Supporting Actress Oscar nom.
As interesting and diverting as Pugh is as Amy though, that’s how bland and disappointing Emma Watson is as Meg. I just don’t get what people’s fascination is with her, she was the only distraction in what was an otherwise perfect film. While I could get lost in the world that Gerwig has created, the only times I was pulled out of it was when Watson was on screen, looking like she was playing period dress up (or rather a mannequin playing period dress up, given the lack of emotion or reaction anywhere in her performance).
I can understand why this story has withstood the test of time; more than any film I have seen in a very long time, Greta Gerwig’s “Little Women” reminded me of the inherent power of cinema. This was so beautifully and intricately crafted that not only did I believe the characters and their world, but was deeply invested in it.
By Jock Lehman