Film

Why Greta Gerwig’s ‘Little Women’ is storytelling at its finest

Little Women proves that a well-told story will never grow old. Today, I’m thankful for a film that gives it new life.

The argument of whether to read a film review before seeing said film is not an easy one to navigate. There are those who believe watching the story unfold with no preconceptions is the only way to appreciate the art in its purest form. On the other hand, there are others who simply prefer to know what they’re in for.

In the case of Greta Gerwig’s adaption of Little Women, I walked a fine line. Avoiding spoilers for a film based on a novel first published in 1868 seems a little strange, but I attempted it all the same. You see, I hadn’t read the novel before seeing the film which, as an avid reader, is not the easiest thing to admit. So I worked hard to avoid spoilers; however, I did catch sight of reviews here and there. I stuck to headlines and Twitter comments only, which avoided any major plot reveals for the most part, and what I found was that the feelings toward Little Women were unanimous — this is a film you simply have to see.

I’m writing this mere hours after leaving the cinema to witness the adaptation for myself. 

I’m still absolutely floating on air.

To narrow down why Little Women deserves such high praise is no easy feat. But frankly, I keep returning to one thing: this is storytelling at its finest. The characters are brought to life on screen with colour and vivacity and the kind of performances I certainly hope to see in awards season. It may be an old story — one written well before our time — but Gerwig manages to give it a fresh take, while still staying true to the magic that makes this story so timeless. 

And yet the story doesn’t feel old. I’m struck time and again by the way a classic novel can resonate so strongly hundreds of years after it is written, by the way we see ourselves in these characters, in their relationships and their fears and their determination to make something of themselves. With this in mind, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that I left the cinema feeling I could completely relate to the March sisters.

If, like me, you’re yet to sit down with Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, you won’t be aware of the lives you’re about to watch unfold on screen. But I’m reluctant to share much in the way of plot here. There is something so refreshing about watching a film and not knowing where the characters will be by the time the credits roll. If you like to approach a film armed with all the plot information you can, you will have to look elsewhere. For the purposes of this review, I’m sticking to the basics. 

Little Women tells the story of the four March sisters — Meg (Emma Watson), Jo (Saoirse Ronan), Beth (Eliza Scanlen) and Amy (Florence Pugh) — as they cope with growing up, chasing their dreams, and facing the realities of being a woman in the 19th century. Each sister gifts us with a dynamic and multifaceted character to find ourselves in as we follow their lives through every heartache, every hope, every moment that moulds them into the women they become.

As the eldest March sister, Watson is the perfect casting choice. She carries an unmistakable quality that brings you to both trust and like a person at first sight — a quality that shines brightly in every role she takes. For this character in particular, this disposition is integral to Watson’s authentic performance. Meg is strong and soft, the leader of her sisters who is a shoulder to lean on but who, importantly, is also unafraid to be vulnerable. 

Scanlen’s performance as Beth brings the shy March sister further into the spotlight, allowing her to be seen as she deserves to be. It would be superficial to dismiss Beth as simply the kind, quiet child of the family. Rather, she personifies the morals they hold. She is unassuming but not remotely forgettable. And throughout everything, she is the centre of the four sisters — the light that helps guide their way.

The youngest sister, Amy, is brought to life by Pugh’s faithful interpretation. Amy is visible to all yet fights to be seen out of the shadow of her sisters with each choice she makes. She knows her responsibilities and has a heavy weight placed on her shoulders to “marry rich”. To reduce her to her selfish tendencies would be doing a disservice to her character. Amy may express her distaste with the way things are, even acting rashly at times in the face of injustice, but she walks a long road to allow herself to be happy. 

While each performance in Little Women is deserving of praise — with particular note of Laura Dern and Meryl Steep’s consistency, authenticity and realism — it is necessary to draw attention to our protagonist. This is the story of the four sisters, but it is told through Jo’s eyes. Saoirse Ronan is again (my goodness, again) faultless. You can’t help but believe in her portrayal of Jo in each and every scene. Her relationships with her sisters, her determination to become a writer, her friendship with Laurie (Timothée Chalamet) — all of these elements are achingly real. You aren’t watching an actor step into the shoes of a character; you’re watching them become that character. In Little Women, you don’t see Ronan as Lady Bird or Mary Queen of Scots or Susie Salmon. You don’t see her as Saoirse Ronan. She is Jo March through and through, a character so completely brought to life that there is no blurring of lines between actor and character. If film actors could take a bow at the conclusion of the performance, Ronan would deserve to.

With that being said, it would be remiss to gloss over the partnership of Ronan and Chalamet. As scene partners go, you will struggle to find any more complementary. What a pleasure it is to watch two actors who are so phenomenally talented do what they do best. The pair are a force of nature on screen. The dialogue and movements shared between the two in scenes appears effortless, a feat perhaps best exemplified in a scene — which I can’t fathom spoiling — where Laurie is at his most vulnerable. Again, Chalamet delivers a performance that cements a film as more than just another ticket stub. He draws you in and holds you there to recognise that this is something special. This is more than a film.

This is the kind of art that will be remembered.

To choose one final element that stands as a highlight of a film full of highlights, I must spend a moment on the wonderful portrayal of relationships. While the romantic relationships and their associated highs and lows are something to behold, the true love in this film is epitomised by family. The inseparable connection between the March sisters is simply beautiful. Their squabbles are relatable to any person who has a sibling, the support they show one another truly heartwarming, and their selflessness in putting a sister’s needs before their own is the heart of this film. 

If ever you find yourself unsure — of who you are, of where you’re headed, of how to be more than what society expects of your gender — please return to Little Women. These sisters are more than the sum of their parts. They are stronger together, courageous enough to make an impossible dream a reality, and more than capable of being soft and tough all at once. 

Little Women proves that a well-told story will never grow old. Today, I’m thankful for a film that gives it new life.

Little Women is in cinemas now.

Image via Sony Pictures.

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