• The Listener
  • North & South
  • Noted
  • RNZ

Little Women: A literary classic adapted for a new generation

 

LITTLE WOMEN
directed by Greta Gerwig

One may be forgiven for thinking, “Surely we don’t need another Little Women movie”, after Gillian Armstrong’s 1994 version, which starred an Oscar-nominated Winona Ryder. It may be the book every girl of a certain age read in her childhood, but it’s also pretty old-fashioned – a pleasant slice of history, but hardly relevant to today’s young women.

Leave it to Greta Gerwig to deliver an outstanding update for a 21st-century audience, which is enormous fun, tenderly moving and unconditionally recommendable.

Utterly faithful to Louisa May Alcott’s book and the time period in which it was originally set, Gerwig’s Little Women somehow manages to bring a fresh new rendering of the prescient feminist tale. It is a tribute to the writer-director (Oscar-nominated for last year’s Lady Bird) that, with brilliant casting and an irrepressible joie de vivre, she is set to introduce a new generation of cellphone-glued, over-anxious and media-obsessed youth to the four March daughters and their equally compelling dramas.

Irish actress Saoirse Ronan returns as Gerwig’s leading lady, playing Jo, the strong-willed writer who is supporting her impoverished family as their father fights in the US Civil War. Ronan is ably supported by the sensational Florence Pugh (an up-and-coming star from Midsommar and Lady Macbeth) and fellow Brit Emma Watson from Harry Potter. Even the fourth sister (Eliza Scanlen) is Australian, leaving Laura Dern as the token American, playing Marmee. All the “foreign” women have impeccable American accents. Their romantic travails revolve around the wonderfully foppish Timothée Chalamet (who also starred in Lady Bird). With this calibre of cast, it feels quite unnecessary to add Meryl Streep and Chris Cooper to the mix.

In a cute case of a book-within-a-book, Jo is writing her first novel, loosely based on her own life and family. She rejects traditional notions of love, balking when her publisher states: “If the main character’s a girl, make sure she’s married by the end. Or dead. Either way.” Jo pushes away the charms of Chalamet’s Laurie, but romantic complications ensue – the sort of situations that might feel a bit twee in this day and age, but Gerwig manages to draw us in entirely.

The story jumps back and forth between Jo’s contemporary efforts to forge an independent life in New York and memories of the March family’s happy but struggling childhood. The leaps are handled well, accompanied by a glorious soundtrack, exquisite costumes and beautiful production design. Every scene is so filled with the sisters’ infectious energy that the action dances along.

A lovely rendition as well as an emotional roller coaster, this timeless story of love, family and strong-willed women is truly a film for today’s audiences of all ages and sexes.

IN CINEMAS NOW

★★★★1/2

Video: Sony Pictures New Zealand

This article was first published in the January 11, 2020 issue of the New Zealand Listener.