Admittedly, when I heard Greta Gerwig was making yet another adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, I wasn’t particularly enthused. I’m a fan of Gerwig, as an actor, writer, and now director—Lady Bird was one of my favorite movies of 2017. But come on, this novel had already been adapted roughly one million times. (And for those of us of a certain age, Gillian Armstrong’s 1994 version is pretty definitive.) Why couldn’t she focus on telling original stories and new ideas and all that? Yeah, I was wrong, this is delightful.
Gerwig, who also wrote the script, takes the familiar tale of the four March sisters navigating the post-Civil War American landscape, and translates it in a way that not only captures everything audiences have loved about the book for more than 150 years, but also keeps it fresh and current. With an absolute banger of an ensemble and an intricate eye for period detail, Little Women has all the charm, wit, warmth, and fierce independence viewers could want.
The lives of dreamer Jo (Saoirse Ronan), romantic Meg (Emma Watson), practical Amy (Florence Pugh), and Beth (Eliza Scanlen), the one who gets sick, is one of bittersweet melancholy, aching romance, wild flights of fancy, and patient women and disappointing men. As they scramble to find their way, they personify that double-sided coin of family: no one inflicts joy and pain quite like the people closest to you.
They love and fight like only siblings can. Along the way there are battles and broken hearts, dreams and disappointments, life, love, and regret—the story is also at least a little bit about one family’s collective love affair with that rapscallion Laurie (Timothee Chalamet)..Nothing is remarkable at the same time everything is remarkable—when you don’t look at what you have and find joy in the little things, the reality that fantastic dreams don’t often come true can be crushing.
Every detail matters in Little Women, both in the story and in the film’s construction. Jacqueline Durran is the go-to for period piece costumes, and when combined with Jess Gonchor’s set design and Claire Kaufman’s set decoration, the lush, exquisite detail crafts an immersive whole. Cinematographer Yorick Le Saux’s photography radiates the warmth and humanity of the narrative. Deftly weaving together character arcs, thematic strands, and shifting time periods, Nick Houy’s editing job is one of, if not my favorite achievements of 2019.
Countless pieces come together in Little Women and fit with tight precision that belies the gentle, earnest heart of the story. Subdued yet subtly radical, pessimistic about love and achingly romantic, uplifting and sad, Greta Gerwig and company deliver a cinematic delight and one of the year’s best. [Grade: A]