Top Fifty Films of the 10s — Number Seven

#7 — Little Women (Greta Gerwig, 2019)

“Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents,” grumbled Jo, lying on the rug.

So begins Little Women, the novel by Louisa May Alcott that was first published in two installments of 1868 and 1869. Well-regarded and a bestseller upon release, the book only grew in stature over the years. Although considered not literary enough to be ushered into the canon proper (or barred from official veneration because of chauvinism), Little Women became a fixture on reading lists, enduring for a century and inspiring a bevy of adaptations. Movie screens were a home to the story’s March sisters many times over, many of the films considered classics in their own rights. Any fresh attempt at bringing the novel to a different medium starts in a long shadow, and it takes a truly special creative mind to pull it into a spotlight that illuminates newfound truths. Greta Gerwig has a truly special creative mind.

A new film version of Little Women was a dream project from Gerwig, and she campaigned for the job of writing and directing it. The film she delivered is flush with obvious affection for the source material, but it’s not overly beholden to it. Gerwig is intensely faithful in her adaptation, often lifting dialogue verbatim for Alcott’s book. She fully rejuvenates the well-traveled material, though, reordering scenes so the narrative moves back in forth in time, the March sisters as girls and as young women essentially coexisting. The film is shaped by emotional impact, as if showing the way memory keep a hold on a person and precisely how past informs the present. If that description seems heady, the film never gets lost in intellectual exercises. It bursts with life, moving briskly and boldly with wit, wiles, and vivacious invention.

The spirit of the film is unassailable, and Gerwig’s craft is impeccable. She displays a wonderful visual sense without becoming overly fussy, which goes a long way towards avoiding the common period film flaw of stultifying refinement or wearying preciousness. She gets marvelous work out of key collaborators, especially score composer Alexandre Desplat. Most impressively — and least surprisingly, given her considerable skills on the other side of the camera — she draws wonderful performances out of a dream cast, each actor managing work that is at once lively and lived in. Saoirse Ronan, Eliza Scanlen, and Timothée Chalamet are especially strong, and Florence Pugh is yet grander, showing astonishing deftness as she bounds between two distinctly different eras of life for the headstrong Amy.

In Gerwig’s rendering, a story that is around a century and a half old moves with a modern soul. It has a feminist self-assurance to it, not because Gerwig imposed anachronistic attitudes on the female characters on screen, but because she panned out the nuggets of quiet, seething commentary in Alcott’s original text (and borrowed a few from the author’s life in the sly, sensational tinge of metanarrative that comes as the close of the film). The assertion of personhood in defiance of a sexist society is part of Gerwig’s Little Women only because it is part of Alcott’s Little Women, not particularly disguised, just usually unrecognized. Gerwig doesn’t update Little Women so much as brilliantly realize, and convey, what makes it timeless.

“O, my girls, however long you may live, I never can wish you a greater happiness than this!”

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