Another period drama remake of an oft-told story isn’t what cinema needs these days.
There’s far too little originality in filmmaking to warrant updated versions of a book that already has six feature film adaptations.
“Little Women” is the exception.
From the opening moments where writer/director Greta Gerwig begins at the end, it’s readily apparent that Louisa May Alcott’s classic coming-of-age novel about four sisters – Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy – living and loving in Civil War-era Massachusetts has never been adapted with the amount of vibrancy or dedication that Gerwig and her cast create.
It’s a highly personal, classical and yet richly modern interpretation that uses the ballpoint pen as a jackhammer to Alcott’s linear narrative.
While prior adaptations have centered primarily around bold writer Jo, Gerwig layers her version with richer examinations of all four sisters and interprets the novel with a bold vision that elevates the source material.
“Little Women” works thanks in large part to its dynamic cast led by three-time Academy Award nominee Saoirse Ronan as Jo and 2019 breakout actress Florence Pugh as Amy.
Headstrong and meticulous in her performance, Ronan sears the screen with an intensity befitting prior interpretations of Jo, but with a soulful complexity that creates a deeper connection between audiences and the character.
Ronan’s Jo works tremendously well on her own within the film, but her work is emboldened further in concert with the rest of the cast especially Pugh, who creates the sort of unrequited sibling rivalry with Jo that is both grounded in the original text and feels authentic as sisters so identical that their similar passions drive them apart.
Pugh approaches Amy as someone who has felt held back by her sister and society but matures over the course of the film to find her own voice and identity in a way that is sincere not perfunctory, passionate not shrill.
As much as “Little Women” elevates Pugh’s Amy, Emma Watson’s Meg and Eliza Scanlen’s Beth are both showcased individually and give strong supporting work in larger group scenes that accent the Jo-Amy duality as well as highlight the importance of their own characters to the narrative. A pivotal scene featuring Jo and Beth at the beach is overwhelmingly emotional thanks in large part to what Ronan and especially Scanlen aren’t saying to each other in the moment and leave to non-verbal cues to the audience.
In one of the film’s most challenging roles, Timothée Chalamet weaves himself flawlessly in and out of the lives of each March sister as neighbor/best friend/love interest Laurie, adding different flourishes to his performance depending on which sister he interacts with. This gives the film much needed complexity and helps showcase the individuality of each sister.
There’s magic visually as the camera kinetically flows through space in the sisters’ younger years, leaping into the middle of the fray of their playful arguments and gliding along as Jo and Laurie dance along an outdoor patio in one of the year’s best crafted shots.
Cinematographer Yorick Le Saux takes a more reserved approach to the older half of the movie with more stoic, wide-arcing shots that create elegance rather than distance.
“Little Women” leaps off the pages of Gerwig’s screenplay with a frantic, chaotic energy that permeates its way through the March sisters and radiates a palpable heat that cinema – especially period historical fiction – rarely strives towards.
There’s an exceptional amount of passion to the film that draws in even many a skeptical viewer. Dialogue is delivered with vigor, often overlapping to the point where words burst from these four talented actresses as if their vitality were about to explode out of their bodies.
So much of Ronan’s performance is driven by this churning, inner desire for a fulfilling, artistic life that fuels Jo’s constant “writing like you’re running out of time, like you need it to survive,” to borrow a phrase from the Broadway smash hit “Hamilton.”
This relentless pace and dynamic energy allows Gerwig’s most daring conceit of the film to be successful as the filmmaker rips apart Alcott’s traditional narrative structure. Folding two timelines – one in the girls’ teenage years and another ten years later as they grow into adulthood – Gerwig reshapes and recontextualizes the classic tale for modern cinema, overlapping scenes from both times to enhance emotional growth amid a sense of nostalgia in the March sisters and allow audiences to see things from a fresh perspective.
Occasionally, this plot structure will jar viewers to keep them engaged in the action and may confuse some audiences unfamiliar previously with the Alcott story. Gerwig takes some slight liberties with the plot itself that brilliantly illustrate the struggles women had in being taken seriously as artists during the 1800s, but not so much so that audiences will lose their way or that the intentionality of the original work is altered.
A virtual lock for Academy Award nominations, the frontrunner status come Oscar season for “Little Women” will be determined more by nods in less certain categories. Best Picture, best actress for Ronan and best adapted screenplay for Gerwig are all but assured.
If potential nominees like Pugh in supporting actress, Gerwig for direction and Chalamet in supporting actor come through alongside technical nominations for costuming, production design and score, then “Little Women” could vault itself to the top of the race alongside “Once Upon A Time In Hollywood,” “The Irishman” and “Marriage Story.”
More than just a simple book adaptation or period piece, “Little Women” is a dynamic, inventive piece of cinematic storytelling from an emerging master filmmaker that deserves to be seen on the big screen.