Little Women (2019)

Own your story

‘I’ve had lots of troubles, so I write jolly tales’ — Louisa May Alcott

Greta Gerwig’s, Lady Bird (2017), interpretation of Louisa May Alcott’s classic novel Little Women is a joyous and sensitive celebration of family, girlhood, and the resilience of women. Drawing much on Alcott’s biographical background as a writer who used her own bohemian family as the basis for the story, writer-director Gerwig has envisioned the most faithful reflection on the author of the often-filmed story yet. Breaking apart the structure of the novel, the film tells the tale of the March sisters in an urgent manner with a scrupulous eye for period detail that renders it a transcendent object of the necessity of owning your own story and determining your own path.

A publishing phenomenon, Little Women (including its sequels Good Wives, Jo’s Boys, and Little Men) is one of the most widely read books written by a woman in history. It is also one of the most adapted. Along with classics written by Jane Austen and the Brontë sisters, Alcott’s defining novel of the lives of girls and women before the 20th Century holds a place of fascination for readers of the past, present, and future. Indeed, it seems that every generation has its Little Women. In 2017 to 2019 alone, there were three major adaptations, including a BBC/ Masterpiece Theatre co-production, and a version set in contemporary America with a distant desert war taking the place of the American civil war backdrop of the source material. All of this is to say, that if you don’t know anything about the novel or the numerous adaptations, be prepared for some 150-year-old spoilers ahead.

‘I can’t. I can’t. I’ve tried it and I failed. I can’t.’

Whilst most adaptations of the book, including the greatly lauded 1994 version by Gillian Armstrong, have faithfully followed the structure of the 1868-69 novel, Gerwig begins the film with the sisters already grown, already having made many of the choices that the life lessons of the early parts of the book set up. Gerwig has stated that growing up Jo March was her childhood idol and heroine, but as she began work on her adaptation of the novel, Alcott surpassed Jo March to become her heroine.

The film opens with Jo (Saoirse Ronan) marching into a newspaper publisher’s office and laying down a manuscript that she’s selling ‘for a friend.’ The publisher, Mr. Dashwood (Tracy Letts), gives her work a cursory glance and violently slashes large sections of the work as unnecessarily moralistic and lacking in populist amusements. He sniffs out this is Jo’s work and offers her the lowest rate of pay for it. Dashwood advises her ‘friend’ that future work should be spicy, short, ‘And if the main character is a girl, makes sure she’s married by the end. Or dead, either way.’ Thusly Gerwig’s unique take on the source material of Little Women in part becomes Alcott’s biography.

‘I could never love anyone as I love my sisters.’

Amy (Florence Pugh) is in Paris on her grand painting tour of Europe, also trying desperately to fulfill the task assigned to her by Aunt March — played with hilarious aplomb by Meryl Streep — as the only March girl with any hope of marrying well. Jo is living in a New York boarding house tutoring young girls by day and writing overwrought melodramas (for example, The Chase, republished in 1995) by night to support her poverty-stricken family. At home in Concord, Massachusetts, the delicate and dying Beth (Eliza Scanlen) lives in genteel straitened circumstances with the beloved March matriarch Marmee (Laura Dern) and Civil War veteran, minister, and educator Father March (Bob Odenkirk); whilst the eldest daughter Meg (Emma Watson) is married and trying, yet failing, to resist the urge to buy finery so her teacher husband John (James Norton) can afford a new winter coat and adequately provide food for their twins Demi and Daisy.

Jo rushes back to the boarding house she’s staying in whilst acting as tutor to the owner’s children and strikes up a conversation with Friedrich Bhaer (Louis Garrel), who in this version of the story is no longer starkly German, but rather French. A younger, more romantic version of the character (in both terms of the Romantic/ Transcendentalist movement that Alcott’s family was a part of in Concord Massachusetts on Walden Pond) the sparring and flirting between Bhaer and Jo is far more a match between equals, rather than a paternalistic figure humiliating the young writer with his superior European intellect. Jo feels both vindicated by his noticing her, but also makes the statement that until her sister Amy marries into obscene wealth, it is up to her mercenary scribblings to keep her family living in genteel poverty afloat. Later, Jo and Friedrich attend concerts together and dance in German beer halls, with Jo feeling the thrill of liberation and adventure in the grand city of New York.

Choosing between passion and necessity.

During Amy’s grand tour in Paris, she is allowing herself to be wooed by Fred Vaughn (Dash Barber) but also coming to terms that she is, at best, an average artist — unlike Alcott’s sister Abigail, on whom Amy was based, who was an accomplished artist. During the tour, she meets once again her great friend and childhood playmate Theodore ‘Laurie’ Laurence (Timothée Chalamet), who has become a louche, decadent, drunken gambler using his inherent wealth and privilege to fritter away his time. The meeting is bittersweet despite the two being pleased to see each other again. Amy reminds Laurie of Jo and her romantic rejection of him, and for Amy seeing Laurie reminds her how deeply in love with him she has always been.

From the whirl of the German Dancehall, Gerwig cuts back to the March house in Concord, where the young March girls are together in the parlor. Meg and Jo, as the eldest girls, are getting ready to attend their first ball. Meg is fretting that her clothes are obviously old and need to be mended, whilst Jo is absently curling Meg’s hair to disastrous results and refusing to be dressed up for the dance. Amy is complaining that her nose will never be refined, and it’s unfair that she cannot also attend the ball. Beth is quietly reassuring Amy that she likes her nose. Jo burns Meg’s hair off and carelessly scorches her own gown. Amy is secretly delighted by the turn of events, and Jo declares, not for the first time in the film, that she should not be asked to do things as she ‘ruins everything.’ Gerwig employing present then past tense cleverly introduces the characters as they are, and as they were, both women and children past. The brief scene sets up all the necessary character traits of each sister that will be explored in the film; Meg’s love of finery and awareness of their decline as a family in social status, Jo’s careless tomboyishness, Beth’s patient and timid kindness, and Amy’s vanity and disgruntled position as the youngest child.

The desire for a fine life comes at an enormous cost.

Jo and Meg bicker at the ball with Jo wanting to make a hasty exit, and Meg wishing to maintain her social decorum. Jo avoids all attempts at social interaction and flirting whilst Meg desires them. In an effort to escape a potential dance partner, Jo slips behind a curtain and bumps into a serious young boy who is also hiding from the evening’s festivities. Laurie Lawrence and Jo March meet officially for the first time, and for both the Lawrence and March families, their lives are irrevocably changed.

Sensing in each other the awkward outsider desire for acceptance for who they are, rather than who society dictates they should be, Jo and Laurie become fast friends. They embolden and complement each other. Laurie is conditioned by a life of loneliness and displacement — and with the casting of Chalamet has a distinctly feminine quality. Jo’s masculine energy and temper have put her at odds with the social elite of Concord. In a wondrous and joy-filled scene, they dance along the vast terrace of the mansion. There’s energy and chemistry between the characters like they’re secretly dancing to The Clash outside a stuffy adult dinner party.

‘Should we get to know the Laurence boy? He could be interesting.’

Due to a dancefloor mishap, Meg requires to be taken home from the ball, and Laurie offers his carriage. Laurie’s introduction to the rambunctious and solicitous March household draws out a sense of longing in him, of needing to belong with and to the March sisters. Laurie claims a kind of ownership over each sister and the March family in general. In a somewhat quid pro quo exchange, Jo finds ‘the boy’ interesting and potentially useful considering his immense wealth. Jo and Laurie form a relationship that swings between adulation and resentment on behalf of them both.

The tension between wealth, privilege and gender is explored by Gerwig with reference more to Alcott’s story than that of the March sisters. In reality, Alcott’s father was not a civil war hero — rather, it was Alcott herself that nursed soldiers. Jo wants to go fight in the war as a man can, and dearest Papa is idolized for his sacrifice on the front line. Marmee counsels patience in the face of the fury she feels every day when Jo admits she is unable to control her will. Each of the women, young and old, is required to give up something for a man. Meg gives up her social ambitions and the possibility of a career on the stage for her love march with Laurie’s tutor John Brooke. Beth gives up her life following the example that dear Papa set by putting charity and goodness above her own wellbeing. A talented musician, her ill health robs her of even her ability to touch the keys of her beloved instrument. Amy eventually gives up the idea that she can be anything but a pretty human chattel. It isn’t until the dénouement when she marries Laurie (now finally a March sister) that her ambition to be loved for herself and her abilities is realized. Jo’s indoctrination into the Walden pond idealism means she gives up everything from her hair to pay for Marmee’s train ticket to nurse wounded Papa, to abandoning her life in New York City when she returns to Concord for Beth, and mostly her own grand life experiences for not conforming to strict gender roles. Marmee gives up not only food and basic necessities but often is unable to attend to the needs of her own children, having been encouraged to be so selfless and civic-minded. Even the stalwart maid Hannah (Jayne Houdyshell) expresses frustration that men are often at the root of a woman’s privation.

Even the love of a mother or sister cannot conquer death.

The only woman who is not forced to give up anything, except, begrudgingly, some pride is Aunt March, for the simple fact that she is rich and is beholden to no-one. She is wise to the economics of matrimony and is also quite content to use her wealth to exploit her relatives (firstly Jo and then Amy as companions). Aunt March’s journey from curmudgeon to a beloved family member, which is partially aided by watching the journey of her niece’s and some subtle flirtation from Mr. Laurence (Chris Cooper), is some of the funniest writing in Gerwig’s script.

Whilst Gerwig’s version of Little Women is overtly feminist, it is not anti-men. Chris Cooper’s, American Beauty (1999), portrayal of Laurie’s grandfather is extremely tender. It is his own loss that he seeks to heal when he invites the March sisters, especially Beth, into his life. Bhaer is no longer an overbearing professor who lectures Jo on her inadequacies, but rather one who encourages her to write but write to her obvious intellect. In other versions of the film and the novel, it is Bhaer who sells Jo’s book, the eponymous Little Women to the publisher. Gerwig’s vision shows Jo muscularly negotiating that deal. Bhaer’s seduction of Jo is still intellectual, but because of casting Louis Garrel, The Dreamers (2003), as the character, it is also sensual. It makes sense for her to fall in love with him and marry him (however peremptorily that happens in the film).

‘I intend to make my own way in the world.’

The film, of course, belongs to the women both young and old. Both Saorise Ronan, Lady Bird (2017), and Florence Pugh’s, Midsommar (2019), performances were worthy of Oscar nominations. Young Australian actress Eliza Scanlen, Sharp Objects (2018), is luminous as the delicate, doomed Beth. Emma Watson once again proves that her Harry Potter (2001-11) days are far beyond her as she imbues Meg with a rich inner life. Finally, Laura Dern, Blue Velvet (1986), and Meryl Streep, The Devil Wears Prada (2006), add to their impressive repertoire as justly lauded career actresses.

Aunt March’s legacy to the March family is to give them the ideal life in Concord. When she passes away, she wills her home to Jo, who turns the entire property into a school. Alcott’s father was a teacher, but in this version, it is Jo who provides an opportunity for all the people she loves to educate and share their many gifts. Jo March, or in this case Louisa May Alcott, becomes the heroine of her own story, and the heroine that the little women who learn the story of the March sisters, truly require.

4.5 / 5 – Highly Recommended

Reviewed by Nadine Whitney

Little Women is released through Sony Pictures Australia