There are many reasons to see Greta Gerwig’s vibrant film of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women: Saoirse Ronan’s plucky, proto-feminist Jo; Emma Watson and Eliza Scanlen as the more easily contented March sisters Meg and Beth; Laura Dern as the compassionate Marmee and Meryl Streep as the spiky Aunt March; and Gerwig’s note-perfect evocation of the Civil War era in New England.
Forgive yourself, though, if you can’t take your eyes off Amy, the March sister we traditionally love to hate. The English actress Florence Pugh makes the unruly adolescent a self-obsessed vortex of melodrama. (Her modern equivalent would have three Instagram accounts.) Unlike Joan Bennett’s sly, kittenish 1933 Amy (cast by George Cukor after he saw how amusing she was when tipsy), Elizabeth Taylor’s “affected, niminy-piminy” Amy of 1949, or 1994’s bratty moppet turned ice queen (Kirsten Dunst and Samantha Mathis, respectively), Pugh’s Amy is a royal pain in the bustle—and a joy to behold. Gerwig knew she had an emergent star on her hands in Pugh, and cinematographer Yorick Le Saux lavishes golden light on the actress’s retroussé nose (no need for the clothespins Amy traditionally fastens to her nose) and glories in her smile.
If Amy’s attention-hogging is understandable as the youngest March sister, who’s seen little of her Union-soldier father, her offenses against Jo seem more shocking than ever, not least the famous novel-burning incident. “I really did want to hurt you,” Amy proclaims. But Pugh’s deep and disarming voice lightens when Timothée Chalamet’s Laurie makes his first appearance in the March home. “I’m Amy,” she says, unbidden, with a frankly eager smile. You sense that this is a girl who’s one day going to get her man, notwithstanding that Laurie is already enchanted by Jo. To her credit, Amy, an aspiring artist like Jo, is driven and independent-minded. Yet her eyes gleam when, after tragedy strikes the Marches, she’s told that she will be the future of the family. And who can deny it?
Pugh’s Amy is a royal pain in the bustle—and a joy to behold.
In Gerwig’s version, Amy gets a fuller arc and becomes a more developed character than in other versions. We meet her first as an impetuous teen and then as a 20-year-old—Aunt March’s companion—visiting Paris. Having concluded that she’s not going to be the world’s greatest painter, Amy bumps into Laurie, who’s completely adrift, and realizes she still wants him, despite his current dissipation. She speaks wryly about becoming “an ornament to society” and explains to him that marriage for her is “an economic proposition.” She’s become tougher but also wiser, with a newfound sense of responsibility toward her sisters and mother.
It’s been quite a year for the 23-year-old actress, whose breakout turn as the psychopathic lead in William Oldroyd’s 2016 Lady Macbeth led to a series of roles showcasing her range, most recently as the unwitting queen of a Swedish cult’s fertility festival in Ari Aster’s chilling folk-horror movie Midsommar. As the spy-assassin Yelena Belova in Marvel’s forthcoming Black Widow, Pugh will surely give Scarlett Johansson’s Natasha Romanoff a run for her rubles.
Graham Fuller is a film critic who lives in New York