American writer Louisa May Alcott’s semi-autobiographical novel Little Women, which is set in the nineteenth century in Massachusetts, has been filmed several times previously, most notably by George Cukor in 1933. Australian director Gillian Armstrong’s version, which came in 1994, was the first to be directed by a woman.
Greta Gerwig’s 21st century re-imagining of the classic tale of sisterhood during the American Civil War is as graceful and intelligent as one could reasonably expect.
Gerwig, who has written Frances Ha (2012) and Mistress America (2015) and directed Lady Bird (2017), gets multidimensional performances from the starry ensemble, with Saoirse Ronan, in particular, a standout. In a significant supporting role, the redoubtable Laura Dern is pitch-perfect as the genial matriarch.
However, Gerwig, who also adapted the screenplay, risks confusing viewers unfamiliar with the source material by jettisoning Alcott’s chronological structure for a non-linear timeline. Our first glimpse of Jo March (Ronan) is outside a newspaper editor’s office in New York City. She is eager to have her latest short story published in order to alleviate her family’s precarious financial situation.
While substantially eliding her prose, the condescending publisher also advises her to ensure that “female protagonists must be married by the end – or dead”.
Throughout, Jo and her three sisters, Meg (Emma Watson), Amy (Florence Pugh) and Beth (Eliza Scanlen) are hemmed in by social practices and values that force propriety and wealth to take precedence over true love.
Even their matronly aunt (Meryl Streep, uncharacteristically underutilised) argues that women must marry well – unless of course, they are filthy rich like her.
In a clever allusion to Alcott’s own marital status, the fiercely independent Jo remains unwed, having turned down offers of matrimony from two eligible suitors (Timothee Chalamet and Louis Garrel).
A sequence in which Jo demonstrates considerable business acumen while negotiating the terms and conditions of her book deal with the same publisher who rode roughshod over her at the outset, is masterful. At times, though, the overt attempt to put a contemporary feminist spin seems superficial as well as a bit heavy-handed.