Little Women (US, 2019)

Anything but little

Writer-director Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird (US, 2017) didn’t impress me but Little Women is a brilliant adaptation and is likely to be one of the best films I see this year. I’ve been trying to read Louisa M Alcott’s novel for a few months but find it a struggle as it is too treacly. Gerwig’s decision to put chop the narrative’s chronology pays off for me because it enables us to directly compare the young adults with their childish selves. Indeed, the degree to which Gerwig has sliced the narrative is extremely impressive as she usually offers parallels between the events happening to the younger and elder versions. The scenes where Jo (Saorise Ronan – brilliant as always) awakes in bed and goes downstairs to find out something significant is shot in exactly the same way (apart from the lighting) and this adds immense power to already emotive events. I have little interest in the Oscars, they are fetishised as being the ‘be all and end all’ of cinematic art, but the absence of Gerwig from the ‘best director’ list simply reinforces my belief that the awards are useless and even celebrate ineptitude (take a bow Tarantino). The only false note I noticed, in the direction, was an unnecessary close-up of Jo’s fidgeting fingers to convey her nervousness in the opening scene; Ronan doesn’t need such help.

I’m struggling to understand the original novel’s classic status as it is particularly anodyne. For example, the scene where Beth falls into the ice covered pond has zero drama in the novel, unlike the film. Presumably its classic status is due to the fact that it is a relatively rare example of a ‘coming of age’ narrative for females hence I don’t get it.

The editing (Nick Houy) is exceptionally good as it seamlessly (to the extent you’re not always clear what ‘time’ we are in) splices the flashbacks/forwards; though, again, much of the credit must go to Gerwig’s script.

I haven’t seen any of the earlier versions of the novel but there’s no doubt that this is one that is about 2020; I’m not sure it has much to say about post-Civil War America but that could be my ignorance. There is a fleeting reference to slavery but even here Laura Dern, playing the ‘little women’s’ mum (Marmee), the reference is contemporary: when saying, to a black woman, she was ashamed of her country, the reply is, “You should still be.” Marmee then agrees she still is; a clear reference to Trump’s America. The decision to use the same actors in both the young and older roles, unlike the other versions, partly explains the occasional confusion of ‘when’ we are but benefits as it gives us a greater continuity of character; it’s easier to understand how they change when we can see they are the same person. Despite their excellent, the actors can’t quite carry off being children but it’s a small loss.

Part of the modernity of the film comes from Gerwig grafting a metafiction narrative onto the original suggesting that Jo wrote Little Women. Gerwig said that the conversation that Jo has with the publisher about women in fiction, that they must get married by the end or the story has no appeal, was the same conversation that she had with producers when trying to get the film made (interview in Sight & Sound, February).

Little Women is an example of that the realitvely rare mid-budget Hollywood film, reported at $40m, and – despite the fact it would apparently only appeal to women! – has doubled that after three weekends in North America alone; it’s also taken over $10m in UK and Ireland. It was also designed as an ‘awards movie’, its middle brow characteristics, as well as its starry cast, are designed to get at least nominations which would boost the marketing. The best marketing is word-of-mouth and the relatively small weekly drops in the box office, and imdb’s 8.3, show this has been very positive for Little Women.

It is a heart-warming film but that’s despite the commonplace difficulties and tragedies in life the film portrays. Indeed, the meta-fictional ending brilliantly allows audiences to have the happy ending and understand its contrivance. There’s a marvellous ambiguity as to Jo’s marital status and she seems more enamoured with the first printing of her book than any man; apparently Jo is something of a Queer hero.

I’ve mentioned Ronan, but all the women are superb: Laura Dern, Florence Pugh, Eliza Scanlan and Emma Watson. The support is uniformly fabulous: Chris Cooper (behind bristles), Timothée Chalamet, James Norton and Meryl Streep. Credit foremost must go to Gerwig, who hopefully will become a major player in Hollywood as she clearly wants to tell important tales, particularly about women.

4 Responses

  1. […] directly an ecological parable it does evoke the power of nature in a spectacular, and scary, way. Two likely ‘films of the year’ in one […]

  2. […] It has been a brilliant year in the cinema so far (well, that may be the end of it) with Little Women, Weathering With You, So Long, My Son, Parasite, Bacurau and Lillian all fabulous cinematic […]

  3. […] It has been a brilliant year in the cinema so far (well, that may be the end of it) with Little Women, Weathering With You, So Long, My Son, Parasite, Bacurau and Lillian all fabulous cinematic […]

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