Pretty much every young woman has a connection to Louisa May Alcott’s story about the March family of Concord, Massachusetts, whether it formed from reading the book, being in a stage adaptation (like me) or seeing one of the many film versions made.
There were two silent era films made before Katharine Hepburn came shouting “Christopher Columbus!” as heroine Jo March in 1933 (the fourth role of her career), then June Allyson took the reigns in 1944’s adaptation before Winona Ryder shone in the role in 1994. Now Saoirse Ronan adds her name to their storied ranks in writer-director Greta Gerwig’s touching take on the classic tale.
While the original story and previous adaptations have stuck to a linear format, Gerwig has chosen to jump back and forth through time starting seven years after the family meets Theodore “Laurie” Laurence (Timothée Chalamet). Jo is in New York trying to sell her stories to newspapers and magazines; Meg (Emma Watson) is married to the poor math tutor John Brooke (James Norton) and has two children; Amy (Florence Pugh) is studying painting in Paris while awaiting a proposal of marriage from her wealthy beau; Beth is sickly and home in Concord, wistfully playing her piano.
We get to know these sisters separately after the Civil War has ended, but before devastation strikes their tight knit family unit.
When we get that first glimpse of them all together seven years in the past, it’s the warmest and one of the most sincerely happy scenes I’ve seen on screen in a while. You can feel the love this family has for one another from the way they move to their overlapping dialogue which brings them to life.
We jump back and forth throughout the film, juxtaposing moments between time, giving them more depth and showing just how far these women have come.
One main change in this adaptation is a kind of redemption of a Amy March (Pugh), the third March daughter. Usually she is played as a flippant, annoying little sister to Jo’s strong, fiery personality. Here Gerwig and Pugh take Amy and fully develop her, highlight the changes from that grating sibling to a young woman of poise and frank intelligence not really explored in other adaptations. She knows she must marry a man of some wealth for her family’s sake and that any success she has, financially or otherwise, will be seen as her future husband’s success and not hers. Pugh and Gerwig hit it out of the park with what could have very easily been a one note character.
In fact, all the siblings are much more well rounded.
But the movie is still at its heart Jo’s story. She is an independent, fierce and determined young woman who throws conventionality out the window. This is not a new version of the character and is is still firmly rooted in Alcott’s original view. Ronan delivers a solid performance, which audiences have come accustomed to seeing from one of the finest actors today.
The main cast aren’t the only ones who feel fully fleshed out, even those who spend far less time on screen have plenty to work with and each actor does a fantastic job of rounding everything out. In particular Laura Dern as Marmie, the matriarch and parent who spends the most time with her girls as their father (in a warm performance from Bob Odenkirk) is off fighting for the Union. She guides them gently but firmly with love and respect through heartbreak and triumph, the best kind of mom.
What makes this version of “Little Women” stick out is how the story presents these young women. Without deviating too much from the source material, Gerwig and her team have made them realistic for a 21st century audience. These are not characters stuck in a 150-year-old story, but they are firmly rooted in stories of women today.