“Little Women” is surprisingly contemporary in its focus on women, as least as told by Greta Gerwig in her 2019 adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s book, written more than 150 years ago. In contrast, the problem of economic inequality, also an issue with contemporary resonance, is treated in book and film in wholly 19th-century terms; all the poor need are a basket of food and a few blankets on Christmas day.
Gerwig brings a modernity to the heavily moralistic novel by flipping frequently between the time when the girls are all teens on the cusp of womanhood and seven years later, when they have—mostly—become young women.
The four teenage sisters who are the March family’s “little women” each exemplifies an artistic talent and a distinct approach to womanhood, even feminism (the suffrage movement was underway at the time), as do their mother and spinster aunt. Gerwig brings a modernity to the heavily moralistic novel by flipping frequently between the time when the girls are all teens on the cusp of womanhood and seven years later, when they have—mostly—become young women. These time sequences, while not as intricate as those in Christopher Nolan’s 2017 “Dunkirk,” interrupt the flow of the story—presented chronologically in the novel—yet also jar the viewer into continually assessing the film’s many discourses on love and options for women.
Jo, the second oldest and the tomboy, is an aspiring and then successful writer, becoming the main breadwinner in the family when Father volunteers for the Union Army as a chaplain. Her trajectory as a writer of family dramas and short stories to a successful novelist merges the fictional tale with Alcott’s autobiography. Saoirse (pronounced SUR-sha, rhymes with “inertia”) Ronan is perfect as the energetic, charismatic and determined Jo, who eschews love and marriage—until she doesn’t.
Meg, the oldest (a radiant Emma Watson), an amateur actress, represents another life option for women; she falls in love, marries a penniless tutor, and has two children. When Jo tries to talk Meg out of marrying, suggesting they can run away together and support themselves, Meg responds: “Just because my dreams are not the same as yours doesn’t mean they’re unimportant.”
Amy (Florence Pugh), the next in line (the youngest in Alcott’s book), is the vain, calculating, selfish painter in the family. She and Jo confront each other more than once, in part, because, as Jo puts it, “Amy has always had a talent for getting out of the hard parts of life.” Yet it is Amy who is most articulately feminist, explaining more than once her view that marriage is simply an economic contract. This is the same stance taken by Aunt March (caricatured by Meryl Streep), who informs the girls they must marry well because they have no way to earn money (there were severe limitations on paying work educated married women could undertake at the time, sometimes known as the “marriage bar”) and no inheritance, since their do-gooder father—her brother—has spent his fortune taking care of freed slaves.
Beth, the youngest (Eliza Scanlen), is a pianist with a sensitive, introverted personality who remains ensconced in the family.
Overseeing the brood is the insufferably sanctimonious Mother, or Marmee, exquisitely captured by Laura Dern. She has one moment of introspection with her unruly daughter, Jo. Suggesting that she, Marmee, has had to suppress her more defiant personality, she says to Jo, “There are some natures too noble to curb, too lofty to bend.”
Gerwig makes the girls contemporary in part by showing their physicality—they run, they jump, they wrestle with each other.
Gerwig makes the girls contemporary in part by showing their physicality—they run, they jump, they wrestle with each other. While she replicates the scene described by Alcott where Marmee reads a letter from father—one girl lying at Marmee’s feet, Jo standing behind her (so her tears will not be obvious), and the others cuddling near her—that’s the exception. Gerwig’s little women are not “good little girls” in Victorian pose.
This physicality can seem extreme. Several scenes—Jo running when she’s sold her first story, Jo and her neighbor Laurie (a predictably irresistible Timothée Chalamet) dancing ecstatically on the porch, Jo entranced while dancing in an underground club in New York City—seem more manic than necessary, perhaps to satisfy today’s audiences.
Besides showing their physicality, the women in ‘Little Women’—and some of the men—present unabashed perspectives on feminism.
Besides showing their physicality, the women in “Little Women”—and some of the men—present unabashed perspectives on feminism: Jo’s talk with Meg; Amy’s and Aunt March’s articulation of the marriage economic contract; Laurie explaining to Amy why the men who dominate the artistic canon are likely to devalue her work.
Is Amy miscast? She seems not up to the man she eventually marries; the audience isn’t prepared for him to fall in love with this icy, vain, competent but uninspired painter. Nor are we prepared for Jo to fall in love with anyone other than Laurie. Marmee asks Jo if she loves Laurie, and Jo demurs. Yet she doesn’t say “no,” and the two—Jo and Laurie (whom she alone calls “Teddy”)—have been shown as soulmates. As if to make up for the discomfort some viewers will feel with Jo’s ricochet romance, Gerwig ironizes the moment, “making the couple” in over-the-top Hollywood fashion: acclaim from family and neighbors (akin to an applause scene), a race for the train, a passionate, backlit kiss.
It may not be intentional, but these developments suggest that not everyone can get what she wants, that life presents options that are not always ideal, and that sometimes one must settle for something other than one’s dreams. That’s a subtler and more interesting message than the others that emerge as possibilities: all girls have exceptional talents that can be realized; do-goodism is an ideal response to social problems; feminism-in-your face; or love conquers all.
3.5 Stars out of 4 stars
Director: Greta Gerwig
Starring: Saoirse Ronan, Emma Watson, Florence Pugh, Eliza Scanlen, Laura Dern, Timothée Chalamet, Meryl Streep, Tracy Letts, Bob Odenkirk, Chris Cooper, Louis Garrel.
Running time: 135 minutes
Playing pretty much everywhere – Regals, AMC, Dipsons, etc.
Lead image courtesy Columbia Pictures
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