By Sam Maguire

 

Little Women, Greta Gerwig’s adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s classic novel is a remarkable achievement, finding an artistic equilibrium between the years of its source material and our world today, resulting in a fresh and warm retelling of a well-worn story.

Played out primarily in the autumnal oranges and sunlight yellows of woodland Massachusetts, Little Women imagines an ever shrinking and more interconnected world. The March family cottage though prettily nestled from growing industry and mechanization is not completely isolated.

The trauma from the Civil War looms over the hedgerows and daffodils, while the sisters pursue what they see as sophisticated and cosmopolitan interests, namely French, writing and painting, hoping the cultivation of these skills will warrant a trans-Atlantic trip to Paris or the like.

Their days are also spent speculating to the goings on in a nearby grand country manner, occupied by a wealthy if slightly mysterious older man, played with reliable conviction by Chris Cooper and his son Lawrence.

Correctly perceiving and treating marriage as an economic arrangement, we see the sisters – through an extensive series of flashbacks and time jumps – develop their own self conceptions and the limit of what they can achieve in a world where financial security for a woman seems only to be reached through a smart marriage choice.

Jo March, superbly played by an ever excellent Saoirse Ronan is probably the pick of the performances, fiercely confident but wrought with hidden fragilities, her writing career traffic jammed by failure to have her female characters married off at the novel’s conclusion.

She sees success as achievable through necessary application of one’s talent and this principle is a guiding force in the diverging paths of her and her sisters.

As the film progresses and we see how the women either challenge or accept the expectations placed upon them it is clear Little Women is masterfully directed, Gerwig understands ensemble casts and how to coax robust, dynamic enough performances to keep the film grounded and intimate, which is important given its ambitious, sprawling scope, highly edited and non-chronological quality.

This is crucial, as since we are taken from Paris to rural Massachusetts reversing and forwarding in time, the film ramps up in sentimentality, putting significant strain on the actors to convey the required emotion as life and aspirations criss-cross and intertwine with each other.

As the film prettily meanders towards its final act, the final vestiges of innocence must be shed and life affecting decisions need to be made. All of a sudden, there are no more “Little Women” any more. The past has been left in the golden glow of their childhood.

The way each women chooses to confront their incoming reality is handled delicately enough and feels as natural and as intuitive as the rest of the film.

Production design is impeccable, granting weight and conviction to the 19th century world the film occupies. There lies a sense of authenticity too in the dialogue, a natural energy to the exchanges that take place within the household which as much as anything else, help distinguish this iteration of Little Women as a more accomplished piece of cinema than its predecessors.

The end result is an epic, a terrific ensemble cast lovingly treated by Gerwig’s directorship punctuated with some genuinely funny moments, concluding with the level of sentiment you would expect.

Missteps are slight and forgivable but they do exist. The film is 10 minutes longer than it needs to be and there is one thematic pay off which feels undeserved and under cooked.

But, such is the assurance in which Gerwig navigates between her stellar cast, all the while maintaining a sense of authenticity and care in the world the costume and set design teams have so lovingly built.

Rating: 4/5

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