‘Little Women’ review: a powerful shot of empathy in troubled times

One of the best films of the year, it's a tonic for recent depressing events

If there’s anything we need more of during these troubled, precarious, shitty times, it’s compassion. In a country so divided across ideological lines – families, friends and Facebook groups alike fractured on the run-up to Christmas – it feels like we need to re-learn how to embrace one and other. To champion not just the self, but our friends, our colleagues and our siblings. Our sisters.

Step forward then Greta Gerwig’s Little Women, the latest (and by far the best) adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s literary monolith, which might just be the most compassion-driven, selfless film we’ve ever seen.

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Gerwig’s Little Women is pretty faithful to Alcott’s book: Jo March (Saoirse Ronan) is a budding author living in New York City just after the American Civil War. She predominantly writes short stories for the local newspapers (at a pretty exploitative wage; the film’s opening scene seeing her broker a deal for $25). It’s immediately after this introduction that the film’s non-linear, wonderfully plotted structure comes into play, weaving between the present and memory as Jo reminisces about her coming-of-age in a picturesque New England town, alongside her three sisters – Meg (Emma Watson), Amy (Florence Pugh), Beth (Eliza Scanlen) – and mother, Marmee (Laura Dern).

Capping off the cast is Timothee Chalamet as Laurie Laurence, the nephew of a rich neighbouring industrialist, putting in his sad, fuck boi best. There’s an edge of Lady Bird’s Kyle Scheible here, and more than a dash of Beautiful Boy’s Nic Scheff. It does make you wonder if Chalamet is slightly one-note as a performer, but he’s excellent nonetheless.

Little Women
The cast of ‘Little Women’. Credit: Wilson Webb/CTMG, Inc.

Sisterhood and the importance of family sits at the heart of Little Women. Moments that see the sisters apart are few and far between, and when they are separated the film takes on a blue-grey chill, representing their collective soul. The film takes on a wider balance of warmth-and-cold throughout, seesawing between hope and loss; pairing aspirations of marriage and burgeoning careers against unexpected, tragic death. These timeless ideas are approached with an intriguing, contemporary sensibility, and it works marvellously.

The film’s modern resonance isn’t limited to its themes, though. Much of the film’s interweaving story deals with Jo selling a new book to an old, cranky, Mr Burns (or, perhaps, Harvey Weinstein)-esque publisher. “I’ll give you five per cent of the profits,” he states: “Gross.” It’s a less than subtle poke at the exploitative practice of Hollywood accounting: filmmakers are offered a cut of the film’s gross revenue as payment, but studio accountants fudge the numbers to show a loss, earning them nothing. Gerwig, through Jo, throws a defiant middle finger up at it all.

Little Women
Emma Watson in ‘Little Women’. Credit: Wilson Webb/ CTMG, Inc.

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Gerwig shot to critical acclaim with Lady Bird, having already endeared herself to audiences via the likes of Nights and Weekends, 20th Century Women and Frances Ha. Make no mistake: Little Women will cement her as one of America’s best working filmmakers. Not only is it a tonic for our troubling modern times, something of a shot of empathy into your arm – it’s one of the films of the year.

Details

  • Director: Greta Gerwig
  • Starring:  Saoirse Ronan, Emma Watson, Timothée Chalamet
  • Release date: 26 December 2019
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