“You must not limit yourself.”
Following the three times that I sat through Little Women over the course of two weeks, growing from an infatuated like to an absorbed and honest love, I finally and perhaps even stubbornly realized that this modern day adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s novel is meant to stir up passion for female ownership and authorship. To fatigue the publishers who try to dictate the stories. To comfort the less fortunate who help inspire their turn towards empathy. To tolerate their clumsy and awkward suitors and with the volatile, often forgiving friendship that comes with being a sibling to a sister. This latest depiction of Little Women is positively among the most timeless period films I’ve seen in recent memory. It’s about birth and death. About marriage and separation, driven by all of the curiosity and the cattiness in between. So many films are a one-way ticket to a singular destination. Little Women is a round-trip. I’ll never tire of sitting with and dwelling in its greatness.
The manner through which Little Women starts serves as a character in and of itself. Nick Huoy’s editing cuts with great precision and the choices by cinematographer Yorick Le Saux waste little time and impact as Jo March (Saoirse Ronan) – the likely destined spinster and the most headstrong author of the close-knit quartet – negotiates the worth of her work with Mr. Dashwood (Tracy Letts), a publisher with more conventional and monetized ideals. Hands shake and an agreement is met. He tells Jo, “make sure she’s married by the end.” She offers a compromised and smug smile, suggesting that she’s only obliging as a means of providing for her family. Jo knows her worth and what she wants even if she isn’t completely confident in those choices. She’s a writer, and as far as she’s concerned, writers write. It’s that simple.
Jo goes about her paid parley in New York. The youngest Amy (Florence Pugh, so conniving and convincing here) studies painting in Paris with the unruly and picky Aunt March (Meryl Streep). Meg’s (Emma Watson) the oldest and thus happily settles down first. The musically gifted Beth (Eliza Scanlen) stays in the family home, stricken by the effects of Scarlet Fever. Their Father (Bob Odenkirk) is off serving on the right side of history in the Civil War and the girls’ beloved mother Marmee (Laura Dern, in what should be her winning Best Supporting Actress turn instead of Marriage Story) does her best to fill the patriarchal void left in his gestating absence. Little Women has a lot of story, and every single second counts and makes sense.
Beautifully blended as it oscillates back and forth between the newness of childhood and the abrupt seriousness of adulthood, Little Women opens its front door and waves us into its warm walls, inviting us to see how life changes and how the constants remain. How we can have the same dreams as our siblings despite placing our own preferential ballots when it comes to priorities. Beth is painfully shy and just wants to speak through music; the man in the manor Mr. Laurence (Chris Cooper in a terrific, tender role), who lost his own daughter, invites her to come play his grand piano. One shot of him seated and listening to her from a staircase is like that of a Victorian era painting. Meg wants to fall in love and to marry, so when she meets John Brooke (James Norton), she decides – that’s the key word – to do just that. John tutors Theodore “Laurie” Laurence (Timothée Chalamet), the charming and wealthy aristocrat across the road.
We first see Laurie in Paris. He walks and catches Amy’s eye from a carriage, and time slows down the same way it does in so many modern romantic comedies when the man sees a love interest. Little Women flips the script, as it should. But Laurie is foolish – an unknowing jerk in the same way so many men in Jane Austen’s stories are – and Amy is as solipsistic as she is blunt, eventually leading to his temporary curiosity in the idealistic Meg, and develops into his juvenile infatuation with Jo. She likes him, he likes her. Her critical friend and admirer Friedrich Bhaer (Louis Garrel) is always felt off in the distance. These neighbor’s poles are too similar though and the magnetism can’t be forced. Such are the laws of attraction.
There’s a certain colloquialism infused into the heart and the spirit of this period piece, and it extends itself through manic dance, a restrained comedy of manners, and the more usual machinations of temporary melodrama. Maybe that’s why it works so well as a depiction of the now filtered through the then, and it credits both landscapes as places where women have to work twice as hard to write their respective stories. But besides all of that, Little Women is simply a joy of a picture. Alexandre Desplat’s peppy score is a cordial and plucky vanity affair that offer the ears a chance to dance, and Greta Gerwig’s brilliant adaptation – as well as her intimate direction for which she deserved an Oscar nomination – tells the story of a family the way that we all uniquely experience it. Life happens to us in a literal linear fashion, but we all remember it in bits from here and from there. The way we piece them together shapes how we see things, how we look back at others and ourselves. We are the author, editor, director and the lead actor of our lives if we choose to be. What a great reminder it is of that fact.
My favorite shot in the film flashes by during the reinvented end, and I think those few seconds speak as many volumes as a full set of the Britannica Encyclopedia could when it comes to Gerwig’s new, invigorated vision. We briefly see Jo, having completed her novel and it being printed and bound, standing outside in the hallway. She looks like a mother seeing her first baby sitting in the maternity ward for the first time, proud of what she’s brought into this world and desperate to hold it. Stories tend to feel that way when you pour yourself into them.That’s the great metaphor of Little Women, a film about sisterhood and maternal instincts, and one that’s never defined by the typical definitions of femininity. It would have been a hit then. It’s gotten rave reviews now. And hopefully Gerwig’s deeply personal, masterful take inspires someone else to tell it in the years to come. Finally, a timeless tale has been told in a timeless way, introducing us to lives without conventional chapters or the limits of binding. They just get to be multi-faceted and fascinating women. What a novel approach.
“I intend to make my own way in the world.”
Rating: 5 out of 5