Little Women

Infamously, only one woman has ever won Best Director at the Oscars. But I fancy Kathryn Bigelow, who won in 2009 for The Hurt Locker, could be joined by Greta Gerwig in 2020, for this beautiful and immensely enjoyable handling of her own adaptation of Louisa May Allcott’s 1868 novel.

For a movie that I was rather dreading, turns out it’s a delight in every department, from the wonderful cast to the luminous cinematography, down to Alexandre Desplat’s gorgeously romantic music score and the brilliant costumes by our own Jacqueline Durran.

I mention all of these things because they’re exactly the ingredients that make a great movie adaptation stand out and allow the big screen to attain the texture and depth of major literature. Gerwig’s film is a real page-turner.

Irish actress Saorsie Ronan is becoming increasingly difficult to rave about, save to say she gets better with every role. Her Jo March is a fabulous creation, finding her own voice through the beating of her own heart and seizing hold of her own destiny and narrative, quite literally, as the film progresses. She’s a thrill to watch, and I can only compare her consistent, natural screen brilliance to that of the young Meryl Streep in the 1970s, who also features here, reliably wonderful all these years later as the scolding, wealthy Aunt March.

But there are admirable contributions, too, from British stars Emma Watson as loving sister Meg and Florence Pugh as the headstrong Amy, as well from as from a dandyish Timothee Chalamet as every sister’s love interest, Laurie.

Despite the seismic American Civl War thundering in the background, Gerwig finds a very 21st-century rhythm and edge to the story and dialogue, with themes concerning money, love, health and career-fulfilment. I was reminded of Joe Wright’s lovely version of Pride and Prejudice (on which Durran also muddied up the costumes), yet Gerwig adds another layer of modern self-reflexivity in the final stages, so that the film becomes about the act of creating fiction itself, the act of writing (or painting, acting, filming) and the role these activities/careers can play in reclaiming and reframing female narratives. 

What there isn’t is any concession to colour – this is a white, white world and I confess to a slight disappointment that Gerwig couldn’t find room for more creative diversity in casting. But this is a film that’s definitely fighting the patriarchy, so I guess one battle at a time is enough.

“I’m sick of people saying love is all a woman is fit for,” wails Jo, whose proto-feminism inspires the whole family. However, love is what also pours off the screen, the comforting embrace of a family led by Laura Dern’s caring matriarch Marmee March. 

Gerwig’s last film was the excellent mother/daughter comedy Lady Bird but this takes things up several directing notches in terms of skill, wit and emotional intuition. It feels almost effortless as she transports you to the March’s universe, to their house, to their problems, to their little dramas, dreams and heartbreaks.

I’ll admit I often find myself like Donald Sutherland’s Mr Bennett in these sort of films, sagely tolerating all the giggles and flutterings but quietly wishing I was watching football in the pub, however I found Little Women incredibly charming and sat there, utterly immersed in the film’s world, with a smile on my face and warmth in my heart throughout. Released over the Christmas holidays, it is a total treat and practically perfect.

Little Women is out Dec 26 2019.