Film & Television

‘Little Women’: Greta Gerwig’s Bold New Take On A Beloved Classic

Ronan has been called the best actress of her generation, and at 25, she already has three Oscar nominations to support that. She has a compelling, always present quality; even in repose, we see the passion in her characters. As Jo, she is desperate for adventure, but just as desperate not to let the charmed life she lives with her sisters disappear. She is enormously self-absorbed and generously selfless. She welcomes the opportunity to support her struggling family even as she bristles at the accepted idea that she should start a family of her own. Ronan’s Jo, despite her often-unkempt appearance, is also strikingly beautiful. When she cuts off her hair to pay for her mother to travel to her wounded father in Washington, little sister Amy bemoans that she’s lost her “one beauty.” This is just as ridiculous as 1994’s Kirsten Dunst protesting the same thing about Ryder. Alcott herself may not have been acclaimed a beauty, but that never stopped Hollywood from casting a lovely and luminous Jo.

Amy is always a problematic character (and there’s a marvelous 2017 novel called The Other Alcott by Elise Hooper that presents the perspective of May, Alcott’s youngest sister, on being portrayed as the family brat). Amy is a stuck-up little terror who softens with age but remains materialistic. Gerwig cast Florence Pugh (Midsommer and Lady Macbeth) and the young actress does a fine job transitioning Amy from spoiled child to self-aware adult. In fact, Gerwig puts some of the film’s most telling lines in Amy’s mouth rather than Jo’s. Amy explains to Laurie that marriage — especially if you’re a woman — is a matter of economics. When she marries, she and everything she owns, every child she bears, will belong to her husband. So, marrying without a thought to the financial contract is not unromantic; it is naive.

Harry Potter’s Emma Watson, herself an outspoken advocate for women’s rights, plays Meg, Jo’s older sister who longs for a happy home. Watson is lovely in the role, and Gerwig chooses to include a bit more of her domestic challenges than directors have in the past. She is a sweet counterpoint to Jo’s perpetual dissatisfaction. “Just because my dreams are different than yours,” she tells her on her wedding day, “Doesn’t make them unimportant.”

And, finally, as gentle, ill-fated Beth, Gerwig cast Eliza Scanlon, best known for HBO’s Sharp Objects. Beth is shy but brave in the face of sick immigrant families, the scary gentleman next door, and, most touchingly, her own impending death. She explains it to Jo as being like the tide. You know it will eventually go out and you cannot stop it. Her sister resists, explaining that the tide may have met its match in Josephine March. Beth’s death in Gerwig’s film, as in virtually all the versions of Little Women, breaks hearts even as it brings the surviving Marches closer together.

Holding the girls close is their beloved Marmee. Laura Dern, like director Gerwig, did much research prior to filming and wove in elements of Alcott’s own mother’s remarkable but often overlooked life. Abby May Alcott was a fervid abolitionist, a talented (although unpublished) writer, and the first social worker in Massachusetts. Dern delivers a wise and nuanced performance. She relates to her daughter’s restlessness. “You remind me of myself,” she tells her. “But you’re never angry,” Jo protests. “I’m angry nearly every day of my life,” her mother corrects.

One final actress rounds out the main cast — a woman who was declared best actress of her generation before Ronan was even born. Meryl Streep makes the most of the generally thankless role of Great Aunt March. Like Amy, she understands the economics of marriage. She makes it abundantly clear that with Meg marrying a penniless tutor, Jo running amok in her literary aspirations, and Beth’s health failing, Amy is the family’s only hope. “You must marry well,” she tells her. And to stack the deck in the girl’s favor, she takes her to France, outfits her in the latest Paris fashion, and pays for her art lessons until a suitable husband proposes. Streep’s role is neither large nor central to the plot. But every moment she’s onscreen is, of course, a delight.

Some viewers have protested Gerwig’s back-and-forth chronology, and some have questioned the film’s enigmatic ending, which Gerwig constructed with Alcott in mind. “Part of what I wanted to do was 150 years later give her an ending she might have liked,” she explains in a Directors Guild podcast. “I thought if we can’t do this now then we’ve really made no progress and we should all hang our heads. But the structure truly came out of wanting to introduce this layer of authorship everywhere in it, how we author our own lives even if we’re not writers and how we kind of tell and retell the story of how we became who we are.”

There will no doubt be another Little Women in 20 years of so. Meanwhile, Gerwig’s Little Women succeeds marvelously in retelling Jo March’s — and Louisa May Alcott’s — stories for a very fortunate new generation.

 

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