In 1860s America, the oldest of four sisters, Jo March (Saoirse Ronan) wants to be a writer. Approaching New York publisher Robert Dashwood (Tracy Letts), he sees promise in her work provided she can deliver “marketable” stories provided all her heroines get married at the end. Unsure if she could ever write in such a dogmatic manner, Jo later discovers that her sister Beth (Eliza Scanlen) has fallen perilously ill.
Returning home, the lives of Jo’s sisters and the pressures of “marrying well” all seem to signal that Jo’s childhood is over – and yet in the telling of her family’s lives, a new chapter will appear…
…doesn’t kick the door down so much as push it open with perseverance and truthful characters.
As a much already-realised text, be it on stage, on radio, in television or film, Louisa May Alcott’s semi-autobiographical tale ‘Little Women’ has evergreen roots. Whilst the societal pressures of marrying well and producing heirs are also the well-established cornerstones of Jane Austen’s ‘Pride and Prejudice’ and ‘Emma’, ‘Little Women’, is a cri de coeur couched in less swooning sentences.
Wearing its feminist intentions in a subtle, emancipatory fashion, Greta Gerwig’s adaptation of ‘Little Women’ doesn’t kick the door down so much as push it open with perseverance and truthful characters. Read either as a romance or a quest, Gerwig’s deftly-directed adaptation manages to be both without being an expense to either.
In showing each of Jo’s sisters as contrasting portraits of American womanhood, all of them are wonderfully realised by a secure and confident cast. Standing out is Florence Pugh’s Amy, who is a pitch-perfect embodiment of an impatient girl who flowers into maturity. Catching her falling petals, Timothée Chalamet continues his steady march towards becoming one of the actors of his generation. With the welcome and sure-handed addition of Chris Cooper as grieving neighbour Mr Laurence and Laura Dern’s generous and affecting Marmee, the stage is well set for the slightly meaty, if polished inclusion of Meryl Streep in full ‘Maggie Smith mode’. However, this is neither a fault nor a full-on distraction as the movie coalesces around the sublime Saoirse Ronan As Jo. Whilst it lacks the more melodramatic and cinematic swoon of recent Jane Austen adaptations ‘Little Women’ is an emancipatory drama that quietly asserts its right to consideration beyond gender.
By neither conforming to expectation or falling onto the waiting barbs of criticism, Gerwig has delivered a comical and entertaining update to a well known classic. As a previous ‘Jo’, I’m pretty sure that Katherine Hepburn would approve, as will you.