Little Women movie review: Greta Gerwig renders a soul-stirring portrait of the artist as a young woman
Greta Gerwig updates Louisa May Scott's 19th century novel Little Women to present a universal conflict: our inability to be single, independent, and happy.
castSaoirse Ronan, Emma Watson, Florence Pugh, Eliza Scanlen, Laura Dern, Timothee Chalamet, Meryl Streep, Chris Cooper, Tracy Letts, Bob Odenkirk, James Norton, Louis Garrel, Jayne Houdyshell
In one of many magical moments worth recounting in Greta Gerwig's Little Women, Saoirse Ronan's Jo protests against a society which expects all women to conform to its concept of the "ideal woman."
"Women, they have minds, and they have souls, as well as just hearts. And they’ve got ambition, and they’ve got talent, as well as beauty, and I’m so sick of people saying that love is just all a woman is fit for. I’m so sick of it,” she cries to her Marmee (Laura Dern). Gerwig actually lifts this quote not from Little Women, but another Louisa May Alcott novel called Rose in Bloom. But what makes her retelling so refreshingly different from every other is illustrated by the concluding line she adds: “But I am so lonely."
Gerwig updates the text to present a universal conflict: our inability to be single, independent, and happy. This is one of many meaningful subversions she employs to provide fresh context to a 19th century novel. Though it exposes the pragmatism and economic reality of 19th century women, it is not all as grim as it sounds. In fact, it is as soul-stirring and life-affirming as cinema can get. It is also a film which allows its literary precedent colour its world with beautiful brushstrokes — and is all the more greater because of it.
After all, adapting Little Women has become as much an inter-generational ritual, as reading it. Every now and again, Hollywood dusts off Alcott's classic novel with a timely rendition, hoping to capture the imagination of a new generation of audiences. But Gerwig gives us a rendition quite unlike any other. By focusing the story on the aspirations of women and their position in society, she rolls an adaptation and dissertation into one. Yet, it is always delightful, never didactic.
Long before there was Hannah, Marnie, Jessa, and Shoshanna, there was Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy — and Gerwig proves these 19th century heroines are still relatable. At a time when the cult of femininity was defined by Victorian ideals like piety, purity, and domesticity, Alcott planted the seeds for a prefeminist consciousness in Jo. She presented a new model of femininity with whom young women could identify — and still identify. In Saoirse Ronan's Jo, Gerwig thus gives us a charming portrait of the artist as a tomboy. In Florence Pugh's Amy, she rehabilitates a once-scorned figure into an unapologetic realist. In Emma Watson's Meg and Eliza Scanlen's Beth, she stresses the importance of women making choices and creating their own individual journeys.
The film remains faithful to Alcott's story, but not its structure. The novel is divided into two straightforward parts, following the four March sisters from childhood into adulthood in 19th century Massachusetts. Gerwig dives right into the second part of the familiar story without needless exposition. Jo has moved to New York to become a writer, but is forced to churn out lurid potboilers to make a living and send money back home. Amy is trying to fulfill her own dreams of becoming “the best painter in the world”, living with Aunt March (Meryl Streep gets her snob on) in Paris, where she runs into their old friend, Laurie (a charming as ever Timothee Chalamet). Meg is married with two children, but her husband cannot afford to buy her all the pretty dresses she desires. Meanwhile, Beth remains bed-ridden, growing weaker and weaker each day. The film jumps back and forth between the present and the past as Gerwig uses flashbacks of events (from comical to tragic with romantic interludes in between) that shaped the March sisters' childhoods to provide thematic context.
Jo struggles to fulfill her literary aspirations in a society which conditions women to believe marriage is the only way for them to be financially independent. Add to that: she must contend with a publisher who insists on the heroine being “either married or dead” at the end for the book to be published. Ronan makes for an ideal muse, delivering Gerwig's quick wit and even quicker dialogue with the ease of a four-time Oscar-nominated actor. Pugh captures the petty-mindedness of a girl prone to the whims of adolescence, and the maturity of a woman aware of her standing in society. Amy knows she is nowhere near good enough to make a living as a painter. If she wants to lead a comfortable life and support her family at the same time, she must marry someone with financial wherewithal. As she sternly reminds Laurie, marriage is thus an “economic proposition” for women, like any other. Unlike Ronan and Pugh, Watson and Scanlen may not get the pithiest of lines or command the most exhilarating scenes, but once you watch them all together, you would not want anyone else to play the March sisters. Gerwig's script, as always, buzzes with a frenetic energy so contagious, the actors all feed off each other.
One of the chief complaints — or quibbles depending on how strongly you feel — about the novel and its various adaptations has always been its ending: Alcott's decision to marry off Jo to Friedrich Bhaer. It was always sad to imagine Jo's fiery desire for independence being doused because the unwritten laws of the publishing industry dictated it. Again, Gerwig plays a clever trick of subversion here, eliminating the distance between Jo, Alcott, and herself. Compelled by the publisher, Jo gives in and marries off her heroine — but only in exchange for complete copyright ownership, just like Alcott did ages ago. Like she puts it, “If I’m going to sell my heroine into marriage for money, I might as well get some of it.”
So, the film's final shots are not of Jo running after Bhaer for a rain-soaked kiss and a last chance at love and marital bliss, like they were in Gillian Armstrong's 1994 version. It doesn't end with a dramatic dash to the railway station, or the family celebrating Marmee's 60th birthday (like the book does). Instead, we see Jo watch her first book being printed, stitched, and bound through a glass window. She holds the book in her hands and lets out a smile, not out of marital or familial bliss, but of personal satisfaction and artistic fulfillment.
Gerwig lets us decide if the story ends with wedding bells for Jo, and even dares us to imagine a world in which she becomes a successful novelist — and remains single and happy.
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