★★★★★ - STUFF
- "Who would be interested in a tale of domestic struggles and joys?"
That's the question asked by Weekly Volcano Press' Mr Dashwood (Tracy Letts) of aspiring author Jo March (Saoirse Ronan), when assessing her Little Women manuscript. It's not the first time he's offered her advice either. "Morals don't sell novels," came an earlier warning, along with the "note" that "if the main character is a girl, make sure she's married or dead by the end".
Not that Jo will necessarily pay him much attention. After all, she's been more than happy paddling her own canoe. One of four sisters from Concord, Massachusetts, Jo decided to pursue a writing career in New York, while, as their fearsome Aunt March (Meryl Streep) put it, "Meg [Emma Watson] had her head turned by a penniless tutor and Beth [Eliza Scanlen] battled sickness". That leaves Amy (Florence Pugh) as the family's "last hope". To assist in her prospects, Aunt March has taken her to Paris to learn painting. But to her dismay, Amy has caught the eye of old family friend Laurie (Timothee Chalamet), a young man Jo has already turned down.
This eighth cinematic adaptation of Louisa May Alcott's much-loved 1868 novel might initially come as something of shock to purists, but the result is a bold, bubbly and bravura retelling that makes this classic tale timely as well as thrilling.
Writer-director Greta Gerwig, who proved so adept at capturing the voice of today's young women in films like Ladybird, Mistress America and Frances Ha, here manages to seamlessly splice contemporary concerns, while still evoking the sights and sounds of late-1860s America (the Hollywood Foreign Press should feel ashamed for having overlooked Gerwig for best director).
Yes, all the familiar beats are there, from the book burning to the hair cutting and the ice skating, but they are cleverly juxtaposed against events seven years later in a fractured narrative that actually reinvigorates what could have been a predictable amble down a well-trodden path.
Gerwig also mixes things up with some clever camera angles and varying film speeds, but, never fear, period drama lovers, the costumes are absolutely stunning, the art direction sublime and Alexandre Desplat's score a jaunty peach.
However, Gerwig's real ace is her cast. No disrespect to 1994's "dream team" of Trini Alvarado, Kirsten Dunst, Claire Danes and Winona Ryder (or Katharine Hepburn and company 60 years earlier), but Scanlen, Watson, Pugh and Ronan (ironically an Australian, two Brits and an Irishwoman) really are a magnificent quartet. Through roles in Lady Macbeth, On Chesil Beach, Midsommar and Brooklyn, the last pair have shown themselves to be two of the most exciting actors of their generation and, here, they get the chance to really shine.
The awesome foursome are also supported by a fabulous supporting cast that includes Streep, Chalamet, Chris Cooper and Laura Dern. While playing second-fiddle to her younger charges, it's her Mamie who gets the most poignant lines. "I am angry nearly every day of my life. But, with 40 years of effort, I'm trying not to let it rule my life."
An engrossing movie filled with memorable incident, colourful characters and heartwarming and wrenching drama, Little Women is a reminder of the transportative and allegorical powers of cinema. Make a date to see this with the significant women in your life.
- James Croot, STUFF
Little Women is now playing at Light House Cinema!