A new classic for raising women in the twenty-first century.
I know what you must be thinking. Another review of Little Women? I really don’t think we can hear too much about it, especially seeing the lack of female directors being nominated for Academy Awards this year. But this is about Little Women, and whether you read Louise May Alcott’s book during your adolescence or not, Greta Gerwig’s latest adaptation is a marvellously fresh look at what has become a timeless classic.
I grew up reading a battered Italian version of Little Women based in an alternate reality where everyone was a mouse. I knew then that there was something about this particular story that made it the perfect cure against a moment of sadness. I knew that, but I didn’t know why; I think I do now. We don’t get a lot of stories centred on women where men are merely characters aiding their storylines. So, when these strange Italian mice presented such a women-led story of solidarity to me, I clutched it to my chest like an old lady clutches to her pearls.
The wonderful Greta Gerwig has followed up the award-winning punch-in-the-gut films that Frances Ha (2012) and Ladybird (2017) were with a colourful and vibrant journey into the lives of the well-known and beloved March sisters: Meg (Emma Watson), Jo (Saoirse Ronan), Beth (Eliza Scanlen) and Amy (Florence Pugh). She brings us into a rural New England impoverished by the Civil War, where four girls, or 'little women', are trying to make their own way in the world. Stories of female solidarity appear consistently through Gerwig’s work as a writer and as a director. Her adaptation of Little Women is just as refreshing and alive as the stories she made up herself.
Without Jacqueline Durran’s mastery of costume design, the four sisters would not have developed as successfully as they did in this film. She separates them with what she calls 'sartorial lines', giving each of them a unique identity. But what Gerwig really achieves in her adaptation is to not present Jo’s as the only character we should fit into. Her screenplay often has characters talking over each other in an incredibly accurate representation of family life: we see Jo and Meg engaged in conversation, Amy talking over them and Beth chipping in the gaps in a whirlwind. When the March sisters invade Laurie’s (Timothèe Chalamet) house (and life) they move as a wave, speaking over each other, in a constant reminder of exuberant life. When they leave, the men in the room are left to be comically useless. In Gerwig’s writing, dialogue is a rhythm, never random.
Gerwig cleverly introduces Amy to her audience in adulthood, only later depicting her self-absorbed childhood petulance. This way, we form an opinion of her that isn’t totally shaped by the silly, attention-seeking things she might have said when she was twelve. Instead, we spend time with her as an adult. Pugh masters the character, allowing us to understand Amy for the first time as more than just a spoiled and self-centred brat. She is an oxymoron: a pragmatic romantic. She feels the pressure of being the only sister truly concerned about supporting the family seriously, and is Jo’s eternal foil.
Seeing Eliza Scanlen portray quiet, submissive, endearing Beth the same year that she appeared in Shannon Murphy’s explosive Babyteeth is almost disconcerting, while Emma Watson fills Meg’s corsets and wide skirts perfectly: she is a protective mother figure, who finds fulfilment in domestic life and motherhood, even if it costs her access to all the beautiful and expensive things she’s ever wanted.
You’ve already heard that Alcott’s story is timeless, and this isn’t wrong. It is for the simple fact that people go back to it for different reasons throughout their lives. I loved it when I was younger because it showed me a glimpse into a beautiful tight-knit family unit. Now, I love it because of how angry Gerwig has written the story to be. Ronan marches through Jo’s story infuriated that women are portrayed wanting men’s love alone from life. Instead, when she loves, she loves her own words, the stories she writes, the book she ultimately publishes about their perfect-imperfect domestic life. Yet, just like Alcott, Jo is forced by her publisher to have her protagonist (and herself) married off to a man at the end of her novel. Dressed in men’s clothes, having become the writer she so desperately wanted to be, Jo argues with her publisher for the copyright of her work. Ultimately, Gerwig writes her as a woman that quite literally owns her own story.
I believe that Gerwig’s adaptation can do for another generation what Alcott’s book did more than a century ago and continues to do. Little Women wants you to make your art, write your life, and live it your own way.
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Maria Orlando is a bookworm and writer that traded Italy's mild weather for London's constant drizzle. All to study literature. Oh well.
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