A triumphant delight, Gerwig’s Little Women (2019) is a new classic cut from the cloth of an old one.
I must confess that although I’ve been aware of “Little Women” for many more years than I care to remember or admit, I’ve never actually read or watched any adaptations of it before – at least none that I can remember. I knew it was a renowned and respected novel of the lives of four sisters who come of age during the years of the American Civil War and I knew, thanks to that episode of “Friends”, that at some point, Beth gets ‘real sick’, but offered a cast and director of this calibre, how could I resist any longer?
Within minutes of the film’s opening, I immediately regretted my having put off embracing Louisa Mary Alcott’s semi-autobiographical novel for so long. Gerwig takes a deliberately contemporary approach to telling the 19th-century story, folding the narrative into two parallel timelines, using Beth story as the flexion point around which she weaves the lives and loves of Meg, Amy and Jo, zipping back and forward across their lives. It’s an approach fraught with risks, especially when it comes to audience members like me who had little familiarity with the source material and yet it’s handled so skillfully and artfully that it rarely if ever gets confusing as to what’s happening when (although to be fair, it does somewhat undercut the story’s most tragic turn).
The production is sumptuous without ever feeling archly indulgent or stiff and Gerwig nurtures some truly wonderful performers from her cast. Of course, you’d expect nothing less from the likes of Meryl Streep and Laura Dern but Saoirse Ronan is luminous and entrancing as the strong-willed Jo while Florence Pugh once again demonstrates the depths of her talents by making Amy – so prone to spite and selfishness – still somehow eminently likeable and sympathetic. It’s Emma Watson, though, as Meg who is a revelation, delivering the best performance of her career so far. “Little Women” is also, I must admit, the first film where I finally understood the fuss around Timothée Chalamet.
There’s an astonishing, oddly tactile veracity to the film, the fabrics, the furniture, the settings all feeling so textured and authentic, wrapped up in an aesthetic which is almost reminiscent of impressionist art, albeit rendered in twenty-first century photography rather than oils on canvas. There’s an utterly charming, captivating magic about the film, one which kept the whole family entranced throughout its not inconsiderable run time. Even my littlest woman, age 6, sat enraptured as she watched the lives of Jo, Beth, Amy and Meg unfold before her eyes. It’s a vivacious, spirited retelling of a venerable classic that’s fully deserving of the ‘classic’ label itself.