Little Women movie review: In an intelligent decision, Greta Gerwig films the story in two parallel timelines.
Little Women movie cast: Saoirse Ronan, Emma Watson, Florence Pugh, Laura Dern, Meryl Streep, Eliza Scanlen, Timothee Chalamet, Chris Cooper
Little Women movie director: Greta Gerwig
Little Women movie rating: 4.5 stars
FOUR nice young girls, one loving-to-a-fault mother, a devoted housekeeper, a father out being a hero in war, a generous neighbour, and a handsome and rich boy. At first look, Little Women seems a too-good tale about too-good people. What then explains the relevance it has held for generations since Louisa May Alcott’s novel first came out in the 1860s? Writer-director Gerwig gets right to the heart of it, capturing the small, everyday rebellions of that story, and making it as current as it was 150 years ago.
She is helped by a tremendous cast, with an astonishing Ronan capturing the dilemmas of a girl like Jo March, even as the surprising Pugh fills out Amy to a character more complex than in the book. Chalamet plays the next-door boy, Laurie, but as one who, almost more beautiful than the March sisters, represents a fragile romantic ideal whom girls have been taught to love. Streep as the curmudgeonly and brutally practically old Aunt March, Dern as Mother March, Watson as the eldest March sister Meg and Scanlen as the sickly Beth March round up this talented film.
In an intelligent decision, Gerwig films the story in two parallel timelines — of March sisters when younger, and of them seven years later, when childhood is past and each has ventured onto different paths. In the pragmatic but romantic Meg who wants to find love and have a family, the tomboyish and bookish Jo who hopes to make a career with her writing, the home-bound Beth who just wants to be around her sisters, and the pretty and coquettish Amy who wants to marry well, Little Women encompasses the range women have had long defined for them. Gerwig does all of them justice, neither holding them to a judgmental eye nor the cynical view of the present. From the Christmas visit to a needy family nearby whom they give their breakfast to, to going without gifts and not putting up much of a protest, and volunteering for the war effort (the American Civil War is on), to selflessly looking after each other, the director realises that the March story is as much about love and faith that finds and holds up ordinary families like theirs — particularly through difficult times as that.
Gerwig casts a harsher light on the men who, while recipient of as much affection, are seen for who they might have been: Laurie a dissolute rich boy prone to complaining and not making much of himself, and Mr March who fancies himself as an adventurer with little responsibilities at home (Mother March or Marmie has a nice-little put-down for him at one point).
However, while Alcott originally did not want to give Jo a romantic send-off, finally giving in to her publisher’s demands, Gerwig does make a concession. But, we are not complaining. If Laurie’s proposal to Jo, amidst a meadow bathed in orange and green, is one of the most romantic and heart-wrenching you might have seen — both in how ardently he loves her and how painful it is for her to pick a different life over him — Gerwig’s choice of the handsome Louis Garrel to play Jo’s eventual beau Friedrich Bhaer will gladden many a heart.
Alcott may not complain either. For, it’s the questions that she slipped into her story which Gerwig puts up and center in her film: can a woman make her own way in the world, is a woman’s fate tied only to marriage or even love, is marriage little but an economic treaty and ultimately a boring arrangement, why is having no purpose okay for men but not women, is the loneliness that bad, and even, are women angry every day of their lives. Says Ronan’s Jo: “If I was a girl in a book, this would be all so easy. I would give up the world and get married.” In Little Women, she doesn’t have to.