Review: Little Women

Director: Greta Gerwig

Stars: Florence Pugh, Saoirse Ronan, Emma Watson

There’s a scene in Noah Baumbach’s Mistress America in which Greta Gerwig’s character Brooke has to pitch her idea for New York restaurant called Mom’s. The place would have big chunky furniture; where at the end of the night the chef and the service staff joined the remaining customers for something spontaneous; where her kids would do their homework after school. It’s an impassioned vision of a home-away-from-home. A place of nostalgia and comfort that couldn’t be franchised. A precious one off.

One imagines Gerwig herself making a similar sort of pitch for her retelling of Louisa May Alcott’s beloved novel. Her sophomore feature following the justly well-received Lady Bird, this feels like one checked off the bucket list – a personal dream-come-true for the multi-talented woman behind the camera, and a cross-generational celebration of those in front of it.

Split across twin timelines differentiated by the temperature of the frame (the past is, of course, warmer), she tells the story of the March sisters during and after the American Civil War. There’s Jo (Saoirse Ronan), the willful would-be novelist who rejects the insinuation that women are only good for marriage and can’t make their own mark on the world. Amy (Florence Pugh), a talented painter whose immaturity is sculpted by rich Aunt March (Meryl Streep) into pragmatism. Meg (Emma Watson), who marries for love and then battles penury. And Beth (Eliza Scanlen), the youngest and most vulnerable sister, who finds an unexpected benefactor living across the road…

Jo is clearly the foil for Alcott and Gerwig alike; the creative who feels slightly askew with the world (this despite how the world has embraced Gerwig), and so Little Women is framed as her journey more than anyone else’s. In truth, she bookends the movie, which opens up in its lengthy and gorgeous midsection, drifting naturally from sister to sister. Pugh’s Amy – initially overlooked, it would seem – is given perhaps the greatest dimension and arc. In a picture robust with strong performances it is possibly Pugh’s work that is the most impressive (not that you’ll be keeping score). She builds an a-chronological portrait of a girl moving from adolescence into womanhood.

Beth’s benefactor across the way is their well-off neighbour Mr Laurence (Chris Cooper). His grandson Theodore ‘Laurie’ Laurence (Timothée Chalamet) is of a similar age to the girls, and becomes initiated into the group (a thoroughly charming scene that takes place in the attic). Over the years, Laurie becomes the still point in the girls’ turning world, as each by turn makes a noise that seems to fascinates him. The families assume he will end up marrying Jo, but for her taciturn feminist attitude.

Gerwig’s understanding and evident love for the source material make this a perfect fit. Granted, it takes 20-30 minutes or so for the relationships to interlock and to adjust to the zigzagging through time, but once this is achieved Little Women doesn’t place a single foot wrong. Like Brooke’s idea for Mom’s, what Gerwig is presenting here is a bauble; a gift for us this Christmas – a film that is warm and comforting, familiar and busy with highs and lows. There’s a feeling of generosity in the movie. Gerwig may be fulfilling one of her own personal dreams, but part of that dream is the sharing of the thing – an act of goodwill that matriarch Marmee March (Laura Dern) would be most proud of.

For her own development, Little Women shows a giant leap on from the impressive but comfortably sized efforts displayed with Lady Bird. Gerwig doesn’t get too formal with her framing (though occasional shots bring welcome comparison to Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon), yet there’s a marked up-tick in confidence that finds itself flourishing in little choices. The quick cutting of Jo flying down the stairs in a panic that suggests she might fall… A moment of air in the film to take in sand being blown over a beach… How convincingly Gerwig lets her own voice break through in the film’s final reel without betraying the sentiments of Alcott’s text. All these things and more showcase a director evolving from a great promise to, simply, one of the greats.

While watching I was reminded – somewhat abstractly – of one of my favourite films that I’ve never yet got around to covering here on The Lost Highway Hotel; Bill Forsyth’s Housekeeping. It’s a criminally under-seen picture. Again, adapted from a novel, it captures a similar sense of autumnal hardship mixed with unbridled and optimistic openness. It’s another story of women living together and supporting one another and, while narratively disparate to Little Women, shares a similar sense of warmth in spite of inclemency, of sisterhood, of rich and enduring American storytelling.

Every year as we enter awards season I manage to back the wrong horse (last time I was crying out for If Beale Street Could Talk). I would love to see Little Women get a clutch of trophies, and most definitely one for Gerwig’s efforts. Time will tell. If my history’s anything to go by, it’s doomed to failure. And if so, so be it. This one isn’t for the Academy anyway. It’s for Gerwig and all the rest of us. A place we will eventually be able to visit whenever we want to, and we’ll want to, again and again. And there won’t be another one like it. Not really.

Is that a good enough pitch?

Score: 

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