This film really means a lot to me for a number of reasons so this review was always going to be a love letter to Little Women but after seeing the film yesterday, I was truly moved and surprised by the version I saw. This will contain spoilers as it has been out for a while so turn back now if you want to watch in the future although the story has been around for 150 years.
Years ago I tried to read the book of Little Women but gave up due to the complex language. However, after seeing the BBC adaptation at Christmas, a couple of years ago starring Maya Hawke, Kathryn Newton and Michael Gambon, I fell in love with the story. The strength in all of the sisters living in the times they did but managing to be such strong characters was something I really cherished. The fact that it was published in the 1860s in a time when women were not particularly valued as authors really shows the power of the little women.
After hearing the announcement of the cast featuring Saoirse Ronan, Timothée Chalamet, Laura Dern, Emma Watson, Florence Pugh and Meryl Streep I became very excited. The director Greta Gerwig is one of only a few female directors to be nominated for an Oscar for Lady Bird. That was a film I also absolutely loved and it also starred Saoirse and Timothée. As Laurie and Jo, the pair were just stunning. Every little movement and look heightened the possibility of a love story between the two.
The story of Little Women follows four sisters: Meg, Jo, Amy and Beth March in 1850s America. The Civil War is raging during their childhood with their father away fighting. They live in a modest house in Concord, Massachusetts with their mother, Marmee (Dern) and their maid, Hannah (Jayne Houdyshell). They are restricted by society at the time of how a woman should present herself and do with her life i.e. get married and have children. They often lament at being poor compared to their friends and others but are soon put in their place after helping out a local family with 5 young children living in one room.
Each sister has their own story, Jo is boyish and doesn’t want to marry. She loves writing and is constantly writing plays for her sisters to act in. Jo is also the main character of the story as it is mainly told from her perspective. Jo’s dream is to live in New York and become a novelist.
The next sister is Amy. She is younger than Jo and Meg and is annoyed at being treated as a baby all the time. For example, she is not allowed to go with Meg and Jo to a dance. She has aspirations of becoming an artist as she loves to paint. She is also cultured and is in ways the smartest sister. She is picked to go to Paris with Aunt March as she knows French and is a good companion.
The sister with perhaps more humble aspirations is Meg (Watson). We hear from Jo of her dreams to be an actress and Jo even suggests running away together but Meg corrects her that she wants to be a wife and live a quiet, happy life. Meg is the oldest sister and often goes to balls or dances which is required to hopefully meet an eligible rich man to marry.
The youngest and most fragile of the sisters is Beth (Eliza Scanlen). She is not interested in finding anyone and her biggest dream is for all of them to be together. She has skills at the piano and Mr Laurence (Chris Cooper) is taken to Beth and even gives her his grand piano. Beth is the kindest and least selfish sister. She even gets scarlet fever visiting the poor family when her sisters keep forgetting.
Laurie played by Timothée Chalamet is a character that interacts with every sister in a way. He lives next door to the March Family with his grandfather. From meeting Jo and Meg at a dance he is enamoured with Jo. She is bold and fierce and cares deeply. They become best friends but Jo never sees him that way. He becomes more relaxed and even angry when he meets Amy in Paris after being rejected by Jo. His nature is a caring one but has a temper that can match Amy’s. Not having any women in his life draws him to the March family and their business. There are many scenes where the sisters are all talking at once but understanding each other. Timothée and Saoirse have great chemistry from playing love interests in Lady Bird so it is not hard to imagine them together as Jo and Laurie which is needed as the audience need to believe in the potential of Jo and Laurie ending up together.
Marmee is a a character that encompasses all the sisters. Greta Gerwig said in an interview that a part of Marmee’s character went to each sister. Her anger at life to Jo, her caring nature to Beth, her desire to be a wife and mother to Meg and her boldness to Amy. Laura Dern is a very dynamic actress and I loved her portrayal of Marmee.
Meryl Streep was brilliant as Aunt March, her comic timing and straight talking brought an authority to Aunt March who acted as a role model to the girls especially Amy and Jo who often sat with their aunt. She never held back any thoughts which was unusual for a woman of the time and she also never married which was even more unusual. There’s a great part where Jo is trying to sell her novel to her publisher and he insists that if the main character is a woman she must be married or dead by the end. That was how society saw a woman’s place in that part of the world.
Greta’s interpretation of the story surprised me as it was not told traditionally. We started with the girls in their adulthood, Jo in New York, Meg married with children, Beth sick and Amy in Paris. The film then went back and forth between the glow of their childhood and the coldness of their adulthood. A few moments that really moved me were Beth’s death, Jo rejecting Laurie, Jo seeing her book ‘Little Women’ being printed, Meg getting married, Laurie finally choosing Amy and the ending where the sisters are all together at Aunt March’s house now turned into a school.
All of the actors were very good at their roles and two have been nominated for Oscars – Florence Pugh for her fierce and bold portrayal of Amy and Saoirse Ronan for her feisty and tempestuous role as Jo.
I think this film will become a classic in the days to come and a masterclass in how to take a well-known, well-portrayed tale and weave it into an emotional, dramatic performance that leaves you feeling like you have lived as a March sister in their house in Concord. Overall I give this film 5/5.