Since Louisa May Alcott’s seminal coming-of-age novel Little Women was published in 1868, there have been countless adaptations of the material. The latest version is written for the screen and directed by Greta Gerwig, who has recently transitioned from indie actress to award-nominated filmmaker. The plot follows the struggles of the March family during the American Civil War as four sisters near the end of childhood; Jo (Saoirse Ronan) is a budding writer, Meg (Emma Watson) has traditional aspirations, Amy (Florence Pugh) longs for a taste of the finer things in life, while Beth (Eliza Scanlen) is a highly talented pianist but is reluctant to share her music. Together and apart, we see the women contend with love, death, and marriage as they fight for independence in a society dominated by men.
Contrary to the book, the narrative hops between the adult and adolescent years of the central characters. This cleverly illustrates the changes in outlook and opinion that we tend to experience in our formative years, and this subtle but effective structural change highlights Gerwig’s storytelling flair. Her passion for this project comes across in the craft, and as it is semi-autobiographical, shooting in Alcott’s family home gives integral authenticity to the piece.
As is often the case with actors and actresses that go onto work behind the camera, they have a way of getting top tier performances from the cast. After collaborating with Gerwig on Lady Bird a couple of years ago, Saoirse Ronan excels again as an outspoken protagonist looking to assert her identity. Jo March is kind and caring with her family, but also very driven and stubborn to a fault when it comes to her single-minded approach in achieving her goals. Her strengths and imperfections are captured in Ronan’s nuanced portrayal, and the bonds she shares with those around her hold genuine resonance.
Florence Pugh continues an incredible run of form as Amy March, the bratty youngest sister of the clan. Petulant, jealous, and juvenile, her personality traits could easily make her completely unlikeable, but Pugh brings a playful humanity to the role. Other standouts from the stellar ensemble are veteran performers Meryl Streep and Tracy Letts as wealthy widow Aunt March and sharp-tongued publisher Mr Dashwood respectively. Both of their characters are symbolic of the era, harbouring the old-fashioned ideals that Jo strives so desperately to overturn.
Little Women is a brilliant take of a classic tale and feels very relevant today despite its wholesome period setting. Greta Gerwig stays true to the established universal themes and shapes them around a fresh, sharp script, and though Alcott’s characters are already so well drawn, she’s added some significant shading in her own style.