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Little Women - Film Review

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Published December 18th 2019
A fresh and engaging adaptation of the classic novel
Little Women is a classic coming of age story, first published in 1868, which has endured for over 150 years. For those few who are not familiar with the novel by Louisa May Alcott, it is set during the American Civil War and features the March sisters comprising sweet-natured Meg the eldest, followed by the boisterous and quick-tempered Jo, next is shy and musical Beth and finally Amy, who is doted on as the baby of the family. The novel follows the girls and their mother, Marmee, through a challenging year of their lives as Mr March goes away to fight in the war. As the sisters progress from childhood games to adult concerns, the story explores themes of love, loss, family and the role of women in mid-nineteenth Century society. The novel is loosely based on the author's own life.

This new film adaptation of Little Women is directed by Greta Gerwig (writer and director of Lady Bird), and draws on the classic novel as well other writings of Louisa May Alcott. In the film the story unfolds as aspiring writer Jo March reflects back and forth on her fictional life. At the start of the film we find Jo (played by Saoirse Ronan) as a young woman in her twenties who is living in New York. She is working as a governess and also focusing on becoming a published author. When she finally works up the courage to submit one of her stories for publication she is told by the editor, "If the main character's a girl, make sure she's married by the end. Or dead, either way." The importance of marriage for women in this period can not be underestimated and this opening scene highlights this major theme of the narrative. The gender inequalities of the time are personified by Jo as she struggles against society's expectations of females which are largely limited to marriage and children.

Little Women Film Review Greta Gerwig
Little Women's Meg, Jo, Amy and Beth March

The film continues in a flurry of scenes used to establish each of the main characters. We learn that Meg (Emma Watson) is married to Mr Brooke and they have two children, Beth (Eliza Scanlen) is content to be living at home and practicing her music and artistic Amy (Florence Pugh) has accompanied Aunt March abroad. We also learn the sisters' neighbour and childhood friend Laurie (Timothée Chalamet) is abroad, nursing a broken heart.

The story unfolds from the perspective of Jo looking back to her childhood with her sisters in Massachusetts. It is recounted in a non-linear fashion, through the use of flash back scenes, where the audience learns about the lives of the sisters, their struggles and ultimately how this has shaped the adults they have become. While this technique may be confusing for some, it also serves to keep the story dynamic and interesting. On re-reading the original novel recently I found it to be quite slow in parts when compared with more contemporary novels, and I found the flash back technique helped to overcome this problem.

Little Women Film Review Greta Gerwig
Florence Pugh as youngest sister Amy March

Another excellent feature of this new film is that each character is given their own time in the spotlight. As well as seeing the sisters together, we are also shown each of them independently and in this way can learn of their unique strengths, weaknesses and ambitions. Each sister has her own ambitions and very different ideas of what success looks like – whether that is becoming an author, finding love and creating a family of their own or becoming a famous artist. By featuring each character independently, it is easier to understand the choices they make and the adults they become.

The novel has had numerous film and television adaptations over the years, indeed this is the seventh adaptation for cinema. Fans of the novel will be pleased to learn that the film remains faithful to both Little Women and the companion novel Good Wives. While the film is set within the time period of the novel, the ensemble cast give it a fresh feel which will undoubtedly help to make the story more accessible to a new generation.

Little Women Film Review Greta Gerwig
Saoirse Ronan and Timothee Chalamet are perfectly cast as Jo and Laurie

The cast includes Saoirse Ronan who is the embodiment of the spirit of Jo March, strong-willed, independent and passionate, while Emma Watson plays the more level-headed older sister Meg with grace and restraint. Young Australian actress Eliza Scanlen plays Beth, who is the quietest sister and who also has the least amount of time on screen, while Florence Pugh has the tricky task of playing the least likeable character, youngest sister Amy. Pugh, however proves she is up to the task, managing to portray Amy in a sympathetic light, and along with Timothee Chalamet as Laurie, both actors light up the screen with their performances. Likewise Meryl Streep is an outstanding choice to play the character of wealthy yet crotchety Aunt March, which she does with relish adding a healthy dose of humour to the mix.

This is an engaging film which is beautifully made, with the utmost respect and affection for the original work. The structural re-working of the story gives it a modern energy and allows the audience to be drawn in on a number of levels – to empathise with the struggles of each character independently and also to enjoy spending quality time in the vibrant world of the March family.

Rated : G

Running Time: 134 minutes

Little Women is a Sony Pictures release and will be in cinemas from 1st January 2020

• Images courtesy of Sony Pictures

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Why? Enjoy spending quality time with the March family
When: In cinemas from 1st January 2020
Where: In cinemas nationally
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