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Little Women Review: Greta Gerwig's modern take on a 19th century tale

  • Published at 12:08 pm February 3rd, 2020
Little Women - Greta Gerwig's second directorial effort - is nominated for Best Picture for Oscars 2020. IMDb

Owing to Greta Gerwig’s bold and innovative decisions regarding how to tell this heart-tugging story, her stature as one of the most brilliant film-makers currently working in Hollywood has indeed been elevated

Greta Gerwig brings the heartwarming tale of the March sisters to the big screens with the help of a brilliant cast and a distinctly innovative approach to storytelling. Hers is the eighth adaptation to this day of Lousia May Alcott's timeless two-volume novel, which came out in the late 1860s. What makes this adaptation wonderfully different from its predecessors is Greta's remarkable ability to retain, through a modern lens, the relevance of the daily struggles and joys of the beloved March sisters.

Saoirse Ronan plays Jo, who is a writer and a rebel. Emma Watson plays Meg, who is the oldest, nurturing sister. Florence Pugh plays Amy, who is a painter living in her sister Jo's shadow. Eliza Scanlen plays Beth, the demure and sickly sister. All four of these talented actors deliver convincing performances brimming with enthusiasm. However, Saoirse Ronan and Florence Pugh as Jo and Meg outshine all the others, as sisters who are capable of being both incredibly sympathetic and cruel to each other. Ronan has played a woman in search of freedom previously in films like Brooklyn, and Lady Bird too. And Florence Pugh seems to have reinvented herself last year as a reliable young actor after her powerful performances in Midsommar, and Fighting with My Family.

At first glance, Little Women seems to be the story of a female writer finding her own voice during a period when women were expected to either “marry well or die.” The notion of a 19th century woman remaining unmarried, managing her own finances, and establishing herself as a writer who is not terribly interested in traditional romance was by all means considered far removed from reality. Yet Jo does not retreat and fade into oblivion; her ambition is only matched by her fierceness and steadfast curiosity. 

What Jo struggles with is the apparent contradiction between her desire for solitude and her daily struggle with loneliness. She appears to suffer from a juvenile understanding of independence which readily rejects love. And Gerwig does not rebuke Jo for her often child-like inclinations and her famous temper, rather portrays this character as humanely as possible with all its flaws and quirks. 

That being said, this adaptation is certainly more than Jo's story. Meg chooses a traditional life as a wife and a mother. Amy accepts her mediocrity as a painter. And Gerwig's new spin does not shame Meg for settling down or Amy for struggling with her artistic pursuits. As Gerwig makes abundantly clear, what it means to be truly free for a woman has a lot to do with her ability to make her own choices.  As part of her fresh take on Alcott's novel, Gerwig chooses to juggle timelines, which in turn helps the audience relate to the sort of disorientation that early adulthood has evoked in the March sisters. Their childhoods are over, and life did not stop for a moment so that they could mourn for what was forever lost.

Whereas the prior adaptations mostly focused on Jo's character, Greta Gerwig's brilliance lies in her eagerness to shed light on all the sisters and celebrate them for their individuality.

Nearly eight years ago, Greta Gerwig played a modern Jo-esque character in Frances Ha, in which she was desperately trying to make it as a professional dancer while struggling every day with poverty. Her character often called herself “undateable.” Looking back at her career, it makes perfect sense today that Gerwig was hired to direct Little Women.

Owing to Gerwig’s bold and innovative decisions regarding how to tell this heart-tugging story, her stature as one of the most brilliant film-makers currently working in Hollywood has indeed been elevated. 

Has Greta Gerwig been snubbed for Best Director at the Oscars for Little Women?

Oh yes. 

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