Florence Pugh, Saoirse Ronan and Emma Watson in Little Women.
Florence Pugh, Saoirse Ronan and Emma Watson in Little Women.

MOVIE REVIEW: Real star of Little Women isn't on screen

LITTLE WOMEN

Four stars

Director: Greta Gerwig

Starring: Saoirse Ronan, Florence Pugh, Timothee Chalamet

Rating: G

Running time: 135 minutes

Verdict: Warm-blooded and exceptionally clever

 

Greta Gerwig gets to have her cake and eat it, too, with this light-as-a-sponge, not-too-sugary adaptation of Louisa May Alcott's 19th century classic.

It's an extraordinary accomplishment in the high domestic arts and one more than worthy of the writer-director's trailblazing heroine.

Gerwig's version of Little Women doesn't so much remain faithful to the spirit of the original book - since that would suggest something passive or static - as actively develop the author's proto-feminist themes for a contemporary audience. In a smart move, she prefaces her film with a few words from Alcott herself: "I've had lots of troubles, so I write jolly tales."

Florence Pugh (Amy), Saoirse Ronan (Jo) and Emma Watson (Meg) in Little Women.
Florence Pugh (Amy), Saoirse Ronan (Jo) and Emma Watson (Meg) in Little Women.

The chosen quote sets the tone for what is to come, signalling Gerwig's intention to embrace the escapist, ­feel-good elements of Alcott's semi-autobiographical story about four sisters living in New England in the aftermath of the American Civil War. But it also acts as a kind of caveat for Little Women's stylistic limitations and sentimental excesses.

Gerwig's skill and intelligence as a filmmaker can be seen most clearly, perhaps, in Jo's (Saoirse Ronan) shrewd negotiation with a publisher (Tracy Letts) who insists that her novel be given a happy ending.

Acknowledging the dominance of market forces, a pragmatic Jo capitulates to his wishes, but not before observing, rather tartly, that she's entering into a business arrangement - much like marriage.

Saoirse Ronan (Jo) and Timothee Chalamet (Laurie) in Little Women.
Saoirse Ronan (Jo) and Timothee Chalamet (Laurie) in Little Women.

This scene sets up Little Women's final, rain-soaked reunion superbly, since it allows for both genre conventions and moviegoers' desire for requited romance to be satisfied, while simultaneously suggesting that we are witnessing is, in fact, a literary contrivance.

Little Women will be strong contender in several Academy Award categories, but if Gerwig doesn't get the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay, she will have been done a grave injustice.

Structurally, too, the writer-director's reimagining of Alcott's semi-autobiographical novel is inspired. This version of the March sisters' story weaves seamlessly back and forth between the various time frames.

It opens in New York, where Jo now makes an independent living as a tutor and author of melodramatic potboilers.

She returns home when Beth (Australian actor Eliza Scanlen), already weakened by an earlier bout of scarlet fever, relapses. During a trip to the seaside to convalesce, past and present intertwine.

Laura Dern as Marmee in Little Women.
Laura Dern as Marmee in Little Women.

Short-tempered, ruddy-cheeked, deliciously defiant, Ronan is the force that drives this version of Little Women.

But Florence Pugh lends Jo's annoying little sister Amy, with whom she has an ambivalent relationship, dignity and backbone.

Emma Watson's (Meg) and Laura Dern's (Marmee) roles are less developed, but Timothee Chalamet is well cast as the March girls' fun but feckless neighbour Laurie.

Loosening Little Women's corset just enough to let her film adaptation breathe, the darling of independent cinema consolidates her place on the main stage.

Although she doesn't appear on screen, Gerwig is the real star of this film.

Opens Wednesday.