Greta Gerwig’s Little Women follows the book, and its sequel, to an absolute tee. Although, this is coming from a time in which children’s books involved a hell of a lot of trauma, sick people, no food, and “Oh No! Jane’s gone out in the rain and now she’s dying“.
But, instead of just sticking to the often depressing and moralistic ways of the book, Gerwig offers a comedy/tragedy balance instead. At least in terms of the more ‘teachable’ moments.
Be it the reluctance of the girls, instead of the whole-hearted enthusiasm to give up their Christmas meal, or the toning down of the religious piety, the characters seem more grounded and real.
Little Women follows the life of the four March sisters; aspirational writer Jo, beautiful but status-obsessed Meg, timid Beth, and self-assured and naïve Amy. Shot beautifully in the New England countryside, the girls grow and learn under the guidance of their, frankly angelic, mother. (I mean it, they literally blur the background around her head in one shot.)
The film uses flashbacks and flashforwards to explore two books in the series; Little Women and Good Wives. The interlinking shows the effect of the girls’ happy childhood on the way they behave as adults. Returning together to their childhood home, the warmth of reunion sparks reflection and change that the audience can witness, thanks to these flashbacks, in real time.
It’s hard to miss Gerwig’s calling out of the film industry too. In a year where women have stood front-and-centre off and on screen, Little Women takes the time to comment. The first scene opens at a journalism office, with Jo pitching her writing. The oversized moustachioed man behind the desk compliments her, but remarks on her use of female characters. If you’re going to use girls, he said, they better end the book either married, or dead.
How far we’ve come.
But Gerwig takes the women seriously. Be it with their good intentions, or bad. They are never restricted to one choice, and even when following the rules their society has pushed, the actors play it with desperation, rebelliousness, and anger.
Oh, and what a film for jawbones. Saoirse Ronan plays Alcott’s self-insert with all the quirkiness and fury of the original work. Emma Watson breathes a vulnerability into a relatively flat character in the books. But it is Timothy Chalamet who seems to have jumped, head first, into a role which he seems perfectly fit for – an aristocratic half-Italian libertine with great hair.
And this is where Gerwig’s Ladybird experience comes into play. Ronan and Chalamet are the teenage outsiders, thrust straight from a 2000s American highschool into 1860s New England. Jumping around outside the windows of a formal dance in one scene, they are the creative ‘others’ who find solace in finding someone like them.
Their friendship is a point of both conflict and resolution as they grow into adults, especially after Laurie’s (Chalamet) naïve and misdirected proposal(s). With their distance, both emotionally and geographically, the characters follow their own paths, and are no longer co-dependent when reunited.
And if any film is going to bring back waistcoats, it’s this one. Dressed like Adam Ant, Ronan’s Jo rushes chaotically through every scenes she is in, with her flowing scarves and theatrical clothing billowing behind her. The clothes are turned down, and up, whenever Jo feels a connection with her writing and her home, but remain perfectly shambolic to fit her move from inspiring writer to published author.
The film is sentimental, but not overly sweet, and balances a rebellion against expectations of women, with a message of accepting love and marriage without it being the ultimate default.
Currently attempting to survive as a part-time writer, full-time incompetent adult, Sarah O'Neill can often be found writing about how much she hates the new seasons of Arrested Development. She does her best writing under pressure and her worst writing under pressure, and hopes one day to write under better conditions. Like by the sea. You can contact Sarah at email@example.comFollow