Greta Gerwig’s love letter to Louisa May Alcott’s story is full of heart and incredibly relatable for a modern audience.
Starring Saoirse Ronan, Emma Watson, Florence Pugh, Eliza Scanlen, Laura Dern, Timothée Chalamet, Meryl Streep, Tracy Letts, Bob Odenkirk, James Norton, Louis Garrel, and Chris Cooper
Little Women, I feel, is one of those stories that everybody sort of semi-knows, not least because of the fact that it is involved in the plot of a Friends episode. It is a story that has been enjoyed by generations, and most of that appeal comes from the timelessness of its heroine. Similar in many ways to other plucky protagonists, such as Elizabeth Bennett, Jo March is headstrong, passionate and independent, who declares, “I can’t get over my disappointment in being a girl.”
Through Greta Gerwig’s take, feminist issues are brought to the forefront, as we explore the lack of civil rights that women possess, the legal inequality of marriage for a woman in this time period and the obstacles that each of the women face in pursuing their dreams. We see this through Jo’s struggle to become an author and the pressures placed upon her to have her female characters either married or dead by the close of the book. The idea that women are only complete when they are married is an idea that frustrates Jo herself, who laments, “I’m so sick of people saying that love is all that a woman is fit for!”. Yet, it, like so many things, is more complicated, as Jo also acknowledges, “But I’m so lonely”. It’s an acknowledgement that it is not a show of weakness to want romantic attachment, or a rescinding of one’s independence and unique qualities. Jo March is just as fierce, and as strong, while also having that longing. In the same vein that Meg and Amy are also presented as multi-faceted beings beyond their respective relationships.
Speaking of Amy, Jo isn’t the only character who is invigorated by Gerwig’s pen. Ordinarily presented as spoiled, or a brat, Amy is an easy character to get wrong. Yet, here Amy is entirely understandable. Indeed, her character’s trajectory throughout the film is more marked than Jo’s. She comes from a petulant 12-year-old to a self-assured woman, easily able to stand her own with her sisters. In the book, it is a complete shock when Laurie and Amy turn up married, especially as Jo intends upon marrying Laurie herself, yet this film makes the union make a lot of sense. Amy is not made the sum of her mistakes in the past (I wanted to flay her when she burned Jo’s book), but instead builds upon this and grows. Furthermore, despite her constantly being at logger-heads with Jo, Amy and Jo’s similarities are more than apparent here. Amy, much like Jo, views marriage as an economic proposition. While Jo is concerned that, were she to marry, her books would become the property of her husband, Amy also voices these ideas. She, however, has been burdened by capricious Aunt March, to bring wealth to the family by marrying rich.
As a woman, there’s no way for me to make my own money. Not enough to earn a living, or to support my family. And if I had my own money, which I don’t, that money would belong to my husband the moment we got married. And if we had children, they would be his, not mine. They would be his property, so don’t sit there and tell me that marriage isn’t an economic proposition, because it is. It may not be for you, but it most certainly is for me.Amy March
Much like Jo, in fact, Amy is presented in the present timeline as being cynical and jaded, a far cry from the giddy teenager we see in her youth. The relationship that develops between her and Laurie is beautifully achieved, with nuanced performances delivered by Florence Pugh (deservedly getting an Oscar nod). Amy rejecting Laurie is wonderfully achieved, and seeing her holding back tears as she utters, “I have been second to Jo my whole life in everything. And I will not be the person you settle for just because you cannot have her.” perfectly summarises her relationship with Jo. They are two sides of the same coin. Impulsive, fierce, tempestuous, talented, headstrong, they merely channel it in different ways. Amy’s ambition has led her to France to study to be a painter, while Jo went to New York to become a writer. Amy is pragmatic in the fact that she must marry rich to assure a fortune for her family, while Jo compromises her artistic integrity in order to gain her own wealth. It is notable, however, the difference in which the two women develop. Strangely, for Amy, she truly comes into her own when departing the family, while Jo only fulfils her creative potential once she returns home.
On top of these wonderfully realised characters, the world that they inhabit is simply stunning. Using details from Alcott’s own life, Gerwig has brilliantly captured rural Massachusetts in the past storyline, which sees a gold-tinted glow conveying the warmth and the familiarity of home. The present storyline, in contrast, is filled with greys, as we see the innocence of youth slowly fading from the lives of the girls. By the ending, however, the aesthetic has once more become warm, as the now-adult March girls are once more united, much as they were at the beginning of the film.
Perhaps the most striking thing about this adaptation which sets it apart from those that have come before it is the ingenious framing device that Gerwig employs. Within this, the film flashes back and forth from the March’s adulthood to their childhood in the family home. It is so deftly done that it makes one question why it has never been done before, and I did in fact have to check whether that was how the book was structured too. It makes so much sense to juxtapose the sisters’ current positions with where they came from, making it glaringly obvious the contrasts between their past and their present. It also creates an interesting new tension, as we become aware in the present storyline from Amy that Laurie proposed to Jo before we’re even exposed to Jo and Laurie even encountering each other. This level of foreknowledge makes what could have been a dreary ramble through 19th century north-east America into one that is full of puzzlement, as we untangle the web of the March’s lives.
Little Women is simply gorgeous. Not only does it look stunning, but the language – much of which has been plucked from the original text – is absolutely gorgeous. It’s also so refreshing to see a film that relies upon the characters and their depiction instead of special effects and explosions to retain the watchers’ interest. To celebrate the sublime and emotive language, I am going to present a handful of my favourite quotes (other than the ones I have already supplied) below:
Just because my dreams are different than yours, it doesn’t mean they’re unimportant.Meg March
It’s like tide going out. It rolls out slowly, but it can’t be stopped.
I’ll stop it. I’ve stopped it before.
When did you get so wise?
I always have been. You were too busy noticing my faults.
If I’m going to sell my heroine into marriage for money, I might as well get some of it.Jo
I want to be great, or nothing.Amy
To conclude, Little Women is utterly spectacular. With brilliant performances all round, stunningly realised on film and beautifully written, this is a must-see.