Jon Jarocki’s review published on Letterboxd:
Women, they have minds, and they have souls, as well as just hearts. And they've got ambition, and they've got talent, as well as just beauty. I'm so sick of people saying that love is just all a woman is fit for. - Jo March
There have been many, many adaptations of Louisa May Alcott's Little Women, most famously in 1933, 1949, and 1994, and I haven't seen a single one of them. Which is odd, because I love the books. I think Louisa May Alcott is one of the great feminist writers, and the Little Women trilogy (consisting of Little Women, Little Men, and Jo's Boys) are her magnum opus. However, even without seeing the adaptations, I'm aware of how most adaptations go, and how they tell the story. So, I was pleasantly surprised when Greta Gerwig started the film in the middle.
The story of Little Women follows the March sisters, Jo (Saoirse Ronan), a tempestuous tomboy and writer, Meg (Emma Watson), a more conservative girl with dreams of money, Amy (Florence Pugh), a determined artist frustrated with her tendency to be left out, and Beth (Eliza Scanlen), a sweet yet terribly shy musician. They are raised by their mother, Marmee, (Laura Dern), while their father are away at war, and entertained by their neighbor, the byronic Laurie (Timothee Chalamet.)
The movie starts years later with Jo working as a teacher in New York, trying to publish her writings to make money for her family, Meg married to a poor man and raising two kids, Amy studying painting with their aunt (Meryl Streep) in Paris, and Beth home sick. However events transpire to bring them all home, as they flashback to their time during the war throughout.
The movie goes back and forth multiple times with this structure, and I feel this helps it immensely. The second-half of the book is incredibly awkward, so this not only prevents the more recognizable parts from being front-loaded, but also allows the two sides to mirror each other. Gerwig plays with time, creating moments of dramatic irony, both hilarious, and in at least one terrible case, heartwrenching. It also allows her to give all of the girls focus, letting us know each of them as people.
The film is beautifully shot, with a feeling of warmth and comfort throughout. Yorick Le Saux, known for his work with French director Olivier Assayas, shoots the March sisters' worlds with a keen eye for framing, regardless of subject. This is perfect, because the art design on this movie is amazing. The film feels like a painting of the era brought to life, especially when with Amy in Paris. Each of the girls' costumes match them perfectly, and also reflect their struggles with money without being overly obvious about it.
The cast all shine, with Florence Pugh giving the stand-out performance as Amy. She gives an all-too hard balance between a sweet, if a little bratty, girl and a determined give-no-fucks type. Saoirse Ronan plays the role she was meant to play in Jo, and Timothee Chalamet delights as perhaps the best Laurie we have ever gotten. Laura Dern and Meryl Streep do fine jobs as well, and it was interesting to see Chris Cooper (who plays Laurie's grandfather) as a sweet old man, but not unappreciated.
The phase "breathes new life into the work" is old hat, but it applies here. Gerwig not only makes a perfectly fine adaptation of the book, but she cut and altered the story to fit her version of the events, playing with not only the world of the novel but the world of Louisa May Alcott herself. In doing so, she makes something that is less an adaptation, than a remix, and a welcome one at that.