2 Hrs., 14 Mins.
Little Women January 10, 2020
reta Gerwig’s adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women opens with a triumph. But it’s a triumph with a proviso. Writer and main heroine Jo March, played in the movie by Saoirse Ronan, heads into a newspaper office to sell a story she’s just finished to a stuffy editor named Dashwood (Tracy Letts). When she hands her work over, she tells him that this is a piece penned by a friend. But it’s clear that
she’s the author, not least because one cannot imagine a writer willing to let a pal do what they will with their work and because Jo’s hands are tellingly kissed with ink. After skimming over a few pages, Dashwood agrees to publish the story, though only on the conditions that he be able to strike out a couple of paragraphs and pay Jo $20 for her work, despite saying beforehand that these kinds of stories typically garner an author (code: male author) between $25 and $30.
In spite of being so disappointed by Dashwood’s revisions that she would prefer the story run anonymously, Jo subsequently sprints like a child — her limbs like noodles, her face in a rictus of ecstasy — through the busy city streets as if she owned them. What has happened with her writing is not exactly what she had in mind, but as an unmarried woman and a freelance writer trying desperately to get by, it’s a pretty big win. Inside the circumstances under which Jo is living, you have to appreciate these moments when you can. In Gerwig’s version of Little Women, this both optimistic and depressing worldview is a bedrock.
This is the 17th time Alcott’s semi-autobiographical book has been adapted. With her revamping, Gerwig, who grew up loving the novel, sought not to thoroughly modernize the source material but instead partially reexamine some things about it that had always been there but had often gone overlooked, or at the least taken for granted. Take, for instance, the moment in the movie where Marmee (Laura Dern), the mother of the four March sisters, memorably tells Jo that she’s angry every single day of her life. Indeed, this brief line sounds like it could be a 2019-minded retooling. But that isn’t the case here. “That’s not something you think of as Marmee saying, except that it’s right there in the book,” Gerwig recently told the New York Times. “She says it…I didn’t invent it. It’s there.”
Some liberties are of course taken, and some tweaks (namely the meta ending) are made here, as it happens when a director is given creative license to cinematize a piece of literature. (One prominent example in Gerwig’s reimagining is the way a love interest for Jo, who in the novel is old, short, and fat, is in the movie molded into a freakishly handsome young man played by Louis Garrel.) If the film has a modern-day kick, that’s in part because, according to Gerwig, a lot of what was on the page was timeless-slash-prescient. She’s only doing some italicizing, with some insertions of stuff taken directly from Alcott’s life.
I can assure the skeptics that a viewing is worth it. Gerwig so evocatively captures the comforting chaos of the early days for the March sisters’ upbringing that the to-be-nostalgic memories being made start to feel like ours. The same goes for the rocky terrain they must travel on once they’re full-grown adults. Especially in scenes of adolescence, Gerwig establishes with the film’s cinematographer, Yorick Le Saux, what might be described as sentimentality visualized, where the colors are richer and the air somehow warmer. Yet despite teetering on the edge of postcard beauty in a lot of moments — all of which are underscored by Jacqueline Durran’s sumptuous costume design — never does the film have an artificiality to it. It's as artful as it is poignant.
The sisters are all compelling, and sensationally portrayed. But Gerwig so expressively constructs Jo and Amy and their interconnected dilemmas that to watch them steer through adulthood another time becomes a couple more reasons to see the movie. (The only trouble with this is that in the end, Meg and Beth do have an inadvertent secondariness to them.) This is doubled by the fire inside Ronan’s and Pugh’s performances, which are so frequently intense that their inner rumbles almost become their own creatures. If Ronan has already confirmed that she’s one of her generation’s great, most emotionally lucid actresses, the rising Pugh doesn’t merely suggest to us that she’s going to be a bigger star someday — she tacitly guarantees that she will be.
The movie effectively captures the loneliness of writers (Jo) and artists (Amy), and an acute awareness that as women, the only truly secure way to financially survive in their time is to get married. As I saw Jo, so determined to write for a living that she’ll pen and get published things she isn’t altogether happy with, and as I saw her have a crisis one time after Amy, in an early scene, literally
burns some of her words in an act of petty revenge, I saw myself. (Other writers in the audience will, too.) In nearly any moment where we’re not writing, we’re thinking about what we’re going to write about next. Amy knows she’s good at painting. But she also knows that she would rather be great or nothing, which then relates to her cognizance that as a woman painter, she must be a genius in ways men don’t have to be to be recognized. To be good isn't enough.
Neither Jo nor Amy is very eager about getting wed (in contrast to Meg, who notes at one point that a happy domestic life is something she’s always envisioned for herself). Jo says flat-out that she doesn’t picture it happening for herself. But she and Amy know it’s a sage and unfairly necessary economic decision, though this means that marrying someone you love who isn't
financially stable or well-off too is as bad a thing as staying single. Ronan and Pugh movingly tear through monologues spelling out their frustration with this (and other aspects of their lives), giving the eventual, romantically bent ending a tang. Two speeches in part involve wealthy next-door neighbor Laurie (a terrific Timothée Chalamet). In Jo’s case, it's because she loves him but more so resents the idea of being tethered to anyone. And in Amy’s case, it's also because she loves him. But her speech also arrives during a moment where
she’s talking with Laurie and he brings up his privileged, myopic ideas about love and creative expression.
There’s a lot of just-right pessimism in Little Women, yet it doesn’t seem a pessimistic movie. In fact the finale (even with the dovetailing tragedy) leaves us hopeful, swelling, almost. Like the early scene in Dashwood’s office, the outcome isn’t ideal to the T, but it comes close enough. This speaks to what is arguably one of the summarizing statements of Little Women: that sometimes small and even a little stained victories are worth celebrating. So vivid and universal-feeling are Gerwig’s visions of familial bonding, professional struggle, and existential dissatisfaction that the movie works over us like a salve. Amiability is generated, I think, by a sense of recognition. One doesn’t often feel oneself loving a film in real time during one's first watch. Though I hate to be mawkish, it’s true that Little Women, for me, made for one of those rare moments. A
assume a lot of people will notice there’s a new adaptation of Little Women and wonder if it needs to be seen, with the other takes so readily available. Its narrative doesn’t diverge too much from tradition. Per usual, we follow the four March sisters, Jo, Amy (Florence Pugh), Beth (Eliza Scanlen), and Meg (Emma Watson), as they come of age, then try to navigate their late teens and early 20s.