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Review: Little Women

Francesca Iucci reviews Little Women as Greta Gerwig depicts the March sisters as never seen before, reinforcing powerful messages about women and money that are unfortunately still relevant to this day.

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Image Credit: Columbia Pictures

Director: Greta Gerwig
Starring: Saoirse Ronan, Florence Pugh, Emma Watson, Timothéè Chalamet
Running Time: 2hrs 15mins
Rating: PG

Whether it was the book of your childhood, read by your parents in bed, your favourite film adaptation, or even just something buried in the back of your mind, we all know Little Women. First published in 1868, the book has been a phenomenon ever since. In spite of the amount of cinematic adaptations already present, Greta Gerwig's (LadybirdLittle Women is a breath of fresh air over the stiff and composed attitude usually found in period films. Gerwig manages to offer a completely new vision of that same story we’ve known for years. I myself must admit that watching this film made me realize I had never truly understood the book until now. In her writing and directing, Gerwig offers the viewer a completely new experience of this tale, paying large attention to details and including information from the book that has been usually left out of other film adaptations, such as Meg's (Emma Watson) spending problem and Jo's (Saoirse Ronan) uncertainty about Laurie’s proposal.

The film begins: we come into view of Jo as she enters a publishing office to try and sell her stories. She is asked to do changes to the story and given less than the usual retribution; she immediately accepts, unsure and nervous of how to behave. This beginning already displays a break with other versions of Little Women as well as the book. The progression of present and past events is parallel throughout the picture; they are thematically grouped one after the other, showing the change in the characters as childhood ends. The back-and-forth from the girls’ present adulthood to their childhood serves to show us how they got there, but also lets the viewer reflect on the difference and similarities seen in them. Differentiated by different use of lighting, the transitions between events come naturally, never leaving the audience wondering the reasoning behind directorial decisions. For example, it is interesting to notice how Beth’s illness is followed by Meg’s marriage; taking place in different moments of Jo’s life, both indicate in her mind the loss of a sister. Furthermore, by beginning the picture this way, audiences get to observe Jo interact with Friedrich (Louis Garrell) and Amy (Florence Pugh) with Laurie (Timothéè Chalamet) before any other, making it easier to picture them in these pairs rather than Jo and Laurie to end up together.

But what remains the most outstanding feature of Gerwig’s Little Women is the ability to situate it within its historical context while still making it appear modern. Gerwig’s directorial choices highlight the chaotic energy in the family, showing us the girls fighting, talking over each other constantly, and being extremely loud. Gerwig also applies that chaos to her shooting style, presenting peculiar dance scenes that are completely taken out of that formal, stiff context we’re used to in period films. Her writing is an essential factor in the success of dialogues displaying musicality: characters talking on top of each other follow a musical tempo, making each scene appear more natural to our eyes.

Gerwig exhibits different sides of the characters. Amy has long been despised for burning of Jo’s book and for her pettiness but Florence Pugh’s performance displays the reason behind Amy’s behaviour. Talking to Laurie, Amy highlights the business transaction that marriage is to her condition. Furthermore, Jo’s character shines as never before, specifically in her speech regarding women’s roles in society and her frustration about her writing. In the case of Marnie (Laura Dern), always seen as the ‘perfect mother’, Laura Dern brings something more to the character; she maintains her warmth while still depicting her as a more complex individual who is ‘angry every day of her life’. Only defect is the lack of exploration into Meg’s previous dream of being an actress before marrying John (James Norton) which would have added more to the joint ambition of the four sisters.

Little Women explores four girls desiring more than what they’re allowed to have, wanting to be ‘great or nothing’, being artists, and coming to terms with the ties that their lives always will have to money. Jo’s role as an author is a blend between fiction and reality; Gerwig shows us Jo as the author of Little Women, including a final scene showing her selling her book. This resonates with Louisa May Alcott’s own relationship to her publisher, particularly the need to have Jo marry in order to make the novel successful. Costumes also deserve great mention; not only is each girl represented by one colour in their clothing, but those colours are also then blended together in the making of the clothes worn by Marnie (Laura Dern), showing how all the girls are within her. Costumes are also interchanged between Jo and Laurie throughout the film, tying in with their strong bond and breaking down the barriers of masculinity.

Louisa May Alcott knew in 1868 the importance to keep her own copyright and to own her own work, a right that is very much relevant to this modern age. Discussing the relationship between women and money and the value of authorship and representation, Little Women offers an outlook on the past that brings us straight into the present. Little Women has just been nominated for six Academy Awards. However, the lack of a Best Director nomination for the deserving Greta Gerwig only reinforces the message behind the film itself, displaying once again the importance in recognizing one’s work and ambition.

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