By Erica Abeel
Director Greta Gerwig’s brilliant cast succeed in making Little Women a feel-good escapist movie with brains.
Little Woman, directed by Greta Gerwig. Begins screening on December 25 at the AMC Boston Common 19, Kendall Square Cinema, Coolidge Corner Theatre, Somerville Theatre, and other movie houses throughout New England.
Little Women is an ebullient updating of the beloved book by Louisa May Alcott that teases out and highlights the work’s feminist subtext. With a dream cast led by Saoirse Ronan and Florence Pugh, Women marks a giant step forward for director Greta Gerwig, who demonstrates (following Lady Bird) that she can expand her reach to a big studio film without sacrificing her quirky sensibility.
Gerwig also proves herself an inventive screenwriter by churning Alcott’s original story through a rewrite that knocks the plot out of sequence. Rather than watch the iconic March sisters come of age through a linear timeline (as in the novel), Gerwig leads with an older Jo March (Saoirse Ronan) already grown into the writer she’s struggled to become, jockeying with a persnickety New York publisher (Tracy Letts, sporting the year’s Best Muttonchops).
The publisher cautions Jo, “If the main character is a girl, make sure she’s married or dead.” After closing the deal, Jo runs triumphantly through the city (a salute to the long tracking shot of Gerwig herself gamboling along the street in Frances Ha)? Gerwig also introduces Friedrich Bhaer (Louis Garrel), an enticing and destitute French scholar living in the same New York boarding house as Jo, who will later play a crucial role. With this opening Gerwig makes a shrewd bid to target the grownups — not just a YA audience — and foregrounds the proto-feminist message snugged within the novel.
Women then loops back seven years to Concord, Mass., during the Civil War. The high-spirited Jo and her three sisters live with their mother Marmee (Laura Dern, lovely) while their absent father serves as a Union Army chaplain. His altruistic — and ill-advised — business dealings keep them in genteel poverty, yet what they have in spades is artistic capital. The all-female household functions as a virtual art colony: Amy (Florence Pugh) paints and longs to live in Paris; Meg (Emma Watson) aspires to theater; Beth (Eliza Scanlen) the youngest — and in fragile health — is a gifted pianist. But of course it’s Jo, the writer (and stand-in for Louisa May Alcott), who dominates, with her ambition and drive, and an independence that’s revolutionary for the period. Her wealthy Aunt March (Meryl Streep, channeling Maggie Smith) views marriage as a way to “save the family.” “I’d rather be a free spinster and paddle my own canoe,” Jo counters.
At a dance Jo meets Laurie (Timothy Chalamet), the adorable grandson of their wealthy neighbor, Mr. Laurence (Chris Cooper). A sort of free-floating love interest for the sisters, Laurie is smitten with Jo. The March women connect with Mr. Laurence after he supplies them with a Christmas feast to replace the breakfast they’ve brought over to an impoverished family down the road. When the Marches burst into his mansion to thank him, the elegant but sterile house all but explodes with the female energy and joy that suffuse the film.
Gerwig creates a weave of stories, using color coding to identify the shifts from past to present. The issue of money figures heavily throughout. After Meg marries Laurie’s tutor, she suffers from their household’s financial constraints. Jo uses the money earned from her writing to take Beth to the seashore, in a futile effort to restore her health. In a pivotal moment, Beth encourages Jo to tell the story that becomes Little Women. Amy will eventually paint in Paris, courtesy of Aunt March, who judges her a better travel companion than the less malleable Jo.
In what’s arguably the film’s best set piece, Florence Pugh’s Amy in her Parisian atelier confides to Laurie her desire to marry a rich man. “As a woman there’s no way to make my own money. . . . Marriage is an economic proposition.” Pugh is the film’s revelation, as she evolves from the bratty, impetuous girl who burns Jo’s manuscript to the poised beauty who coolly appraises the period’s limitations on women. With her magnetism and deep contralto, Pugh is a thrilling presence. She holds her own against the formidable Saoirse Ronan, who delivers a Jo for the ages. Ronan is especially affecting in a moment when she realizes all she’s sacrificed to embrace the writer’s life and paddle her own canoe.
Some viewers may find the back-and-forth of the plot jolting and difficult to follow. In fact, you’d need a repeat viewing to suss out exactly what links or themes dictate the leaps from present to past and back. Where are we in the sequence of events, the viewer may often wonder. At times the rambunctious scenes of the teenage girls cavorting at home come off as strained and stagey.
And Gerwig doesn’t always land the big scenes; notably, the one where Jo refuses Laurie’s marriage proposal feels anticlimactic. Though Chalamet is delectable to look at — he need only shake his tousled hair — his indolent Laurie is kind of a weak sister alongside the March sisters (though maybe that was the intention?) His gait blurs uncomfortably with past role,s and in the third act he all but fades from view. In contrast, Ronan has adopted an electric movement style to convey Jo’s passion and grit. It might also be (churlishly) objected that the equation of marriage with economic survival that Gerwig treats as “news” is super familiar from the work of Jane Austen.
Yet Gerwig’s brilliant cast succeed in making Women a feel-good escapist movie with brains. The camera of master DP Yorick LeSaux lends it a glowy visual beauty: the interiors of the March household are burnished and cozy; the wintry or autumnal New England locales might be lifted from Currier & Ives—you can all but smell the crisp air. The final scenes, when Gerwig adroitly dovetails Jo’s novel with her “real life” denouement, delivers the happy ending you didn’t know you hoped for. In fact, can we detect a mischievous ambiguity and wink from Gerwig here? Just as Jo’s characters must wed to satisfy her readers, so Jo falls into the marriage plot so the film’s audience can leave the theater with a springy step.
Erica Abeel is a novelist, film and cultural critic, and former professor at CUNY. Her journalism has appeared in the New York Times, Indiewire, and other major sites and publications. Wild Girls, her most recent novel, was praised by Oprah Magazine as a “libidinous period novel [that] follows three budding feminists through an elite women’s college, the New York art scene, and Allen Ginsberg’s bed, as they redefine womanhood for themselves and future generations.”