Starring Saoirse Ronan, Emma Watson, Florence Pugh, Laura Dern, Timothée Chalamet
Directed by Greta Gerwig
Rating: ***** (5 stars)
To not nominate Greta Gerwig in the Best Director’s category is a shame that the Oscars would have to live down for as long as they (the Oscars) and the male biases that exist in movie industries all over the world, live.
Ironically the protagonist of Louisa May Alcott’s novel faces such prejudices all her life. In an early sequence of this resplendent adaptation of a timeless novel, Jo (the incandescent Saoirse Ronan) is told by her publisher that her writing needs to avoid masculine themes and concentrate on the heroine finding a suitable match for herself.
This is America in the 1860s and director Gerwig plunges right in there. We meet the March family of all-women (the father is away at war) and immediately fall in love with all of them, collectively and individually. There is a magical quality to how much empathy and compassion Gerwig brings to the dining table.
Each of the four sisters is played with luminous credibility by actresses who seem the least conscious of the burden of re-creating a classic that has been done repeatedly in the past. 17 times, I am informed, though I am not sure of the number since I haven’t seen all the renditions of Alcott’s influential novel. From the screen adaptations that I’ve seen, this one is by far, the finest, most supple and energetic, warmest and most heartwarming.
Gerwig uses the somewhat cramped spaces in the March home to generate a sense of familial camaraderie that evokes envy and empathy in us every time we see the sisters bantering and bickering. The actors seem to enjoy a togetherness born outside camera range. They were one even before Ms Gerwig yelled action.
What makes Little Women unique is its complete eschewal of negative forces. Issues such as racial discrimination and class distinction are not dwelled on. Even the theme of gender bias is brought up in a way that never mocks masculinity. In fact, right next to the March sisters’ home is a magnificent man-filled mansion inhabited by a generous aristocrat (Chris Cooper) and his highly eligible grandson Laurie, played by the Call Me By Your Name star Timothee Chalamet.
I’ve been wary of all the raves showered on Chalamet until now. In Little Women, I realized Chalamet was born to be in a classic adaptation. His attitude and responses suggest a deep attachment and affinity to an era that’s forever lost. The same is true of the other actors in the brilliant ensemble cast. They all breathe and exhale oxygen that’s gone with the wind.
And yet the complex narrative does not expend its precious energy in nostalgia or regret. There is a defiant disregard for time passages, with the plot skipping from one episode to another in no chronological order and sometimes reviving incidents that we thought had been left behind on the editing table. Eventually, all the ingredients in this ravishing ode to muliebrity comes together in a triumphant embrace. This is life the way it is meant to be.
This is one film that is designed to seduce us back for a second viewing to savour the nuances in the delicately drawn performances, none more so than the unbearably beautiful Saoirse Ronan who plays Jo with such spirited sublimity. The other three sisters, Emma Watson as the conformist Meg, Florence Pugh as the rebellious Amy, Eliza Scanlen as the dying Beth are an exception in the grasp of their characters’ ravenous need of self-expression.
There are countless moments of heart-stopping beauty in this wondrous work of art. I will pick the one where the aristocrat sits on the stairs of his mansion listening to the ailing Beth play the piano that his dead daughter once did. Then there is this shot of Jo cradling Beth in her arms on the beach, the louring skies silhouetting the two women in a cosmic embrace.
Who is the real star of Little Women? Author Louisa May Alcott? Director Greta Gerwig? Actor Saoirse Ronan? Or the cinematographer Yorick Le Saux? The mystery will linger for as long as the magic of cinema lives.