Greta Gerwig quickly shot up on my “directors to watch” list immediately after Lady Bird. The thing is: she’s been around for a long while as an actress and writer/producer, but Lady Bird was her chance to steer the ship and she nailed it with a completely personal story that only she could give us. Although there have been numerous Little Women incarnations in the past 100 years or so (even as recent as 2018!), this one is decidedly her own.
Adapting Little Women, especially for the modern era, can be tricky. In an era filled to the brim with explosive action films, period dramas aren’t exactly blockbusters, but Greta Gerwig’s version somehow manages to pull off a multi-timeline story stretch that so many other projects have stumbled through (It Chapter 2 immediately comes to mind). One thing that really bugs me about a lot of films that flip back and forth between timelines: little to no effort is made to differentiate them or give them any degree of tonal contrast or gravitas.
Gerwig’s choice to clearly create an aesthetic dichotomy between the moment the titular women start to shift into adulthood and the years following is poignant and triumphant. There’s zero room for confusion here despite some of the more nuanced themes seeping through, allowing you to wholly immerse yourself in the characters and the performances. One scene in particular handles flashing back and forward in one of the cleanest ways I’ve seen on film, and Yorick Le Saux’s cinematic framing allows each of them to shine.
And what a set of performances! Meryl Streep is kind of there putting on a clinic intermittently throughout the film as the biting Aunt March; but the dream team of Saoirse Ronan, Emma Watson, Florence Pugh and Eliza Scanlen as Jo, Meg, Amy and Beth respectively all have palpable chemistry. There isn’t a hint of cynicism from any of their performances, nor from Timothee Chalamet’s character “Laurie,” who wanders in and out of these women’s lives over the course of the film’s timeline. Going a step further, does anyone have proof of Timothee Chalamet’s existence before he entered the film scene in 2014? It’s possible that he entered our world via a portal from the 19th century, Kate and Leopold style. Despite his effortless performance, Saoirse Ronan is the clear anchor and heart of the film and is showing us in real time why she is likely going to be the next Meryl Streep.
Again, this is Gerwig’s take on Little Women, so there are points (most notably, the ending) where she takes the steering wheel and goes down a completely different, modern path. It might be considered sacrilege, but in most cases, it’s for the better? Gerwig manages to capture the entire essence of the original work and give us something new in a way we haven’t seen it before. It’s pretty much all you can ask for.
If anyone is wondering how to do centuries-old period dramas in 2020: follow the blueprint of Gerwig’s Little Women. Getting an entire cast together who can actually pull it off is easier said than done, but as we’ve just seen: it can be done.