Jo March is Centerstage, as She Should Be, in Greta Gerwig’s ‘Little Women’
LITTLE WOMEN ★★★★(4/5 stars)
Directed by: Greta Gerwig
Written by: Greta Gerwig
Starring: Saoirse Ronan, Emma Watson, Florence Pugh, Eliza Scanlen, Laura Dern, Timothée Chalamet, Meryl Streep, Tracy Letts, Bob Odenkirk
Running time: 135 min
Louisa May Alcott’s semi-autobiographical novel Little Women was a sensation when it came out over the course of 1868 and 1869, and the main reason was its most vivid heroine, the precociously aspirational author Jo. She is its gravitational center, the surrogate for equally ambitious Alcott who wanted to be a successful woman in a man’s world. Modernizing that thoroughly modern story, filmmaker Greta Gerwig makes a bold, beautiful 21stcentury version that the author herself would have found both respectful and audacious. But is it still all about Jo? You bet.
From the very first frame, Jo is front and center. She is the heart and soul and engine that gives Little Women its ferocious propulsion and red-hot indignance. “You’re on fire,” says potential paramour Frederick (Louis Garrel). And he’s right, because she is. Also because she’s standing too close to the fireplace and her dress literally catches fire. That happens to her a lot.
But the book, and the film, isn’t called Little Jo. It’s Little Women. The reason Jo’s firebrand panache remains compelling is because of her relationships with those three sisters: dully romantic Meg (Emma Watson), resentfully pragmatic Amy (Florence Pugh), and chronically ill Beth (Eliza Scanlen). Alcott’s tale still resonates after 150 years, and has spawned a half-dozen film adaptations, because Jo’s interactions with them are so richly authentic. And because the limited options that they all face in life are so enduring. “There are precious few ways for women,” bemoans their rich widowed aunt March (Meryl Streep). The more things change, the more they stay the same.
The world is radically different now, but there’s still room for improvement. Enter Gerwig, the first female director to tackle this subject matter, and the first to change it from a doting domestic drama to an invigoratingly proactive story of self-realization. She underlines and boldfaces the trepidatious glow behind every marriage. It’s an economic proposition, flatly explains disillusioned Amy to rich willowy hunk Laurie (Timothée Chalamet), with a stunner of a speech that doesn’t appear anywhere in the book yet absolutely crystallizes the film. In this retelling, gloomy Laurie and all the rest of the men are comfortably forlorn in their maudlin view of romance. The women, meanwhile, speak the jagged-edged truth.
Written in two parts, the novel first focuses on the four teenage sisters’ life in Concord, Massachusetts, then leaps forward a few years later and explores their experiences as young ladies. Gerwig cleverly interlaces the two, starting in the adult years and then occasionally flashing back to their pubescence. Why not turn the younger years into evocations of a more innocent time? Those moments together in Concord are suddenly bittersweet in ways they weren’t before. With an emphasis on bitter. “I am angry nearly every day of my life,” says matriarch Marmee (Laura Dern), a defiantly chipper mother who masks her chronic sorrow with small acts of kindness.
Little Women is Gerwig’s second movie as a writer-director, an astonishing fact for such an impeccably crafted period piece. Not only is her dialogue aptly evocative, but so much of her storytelling comes through the camerawork that it’s sometimes startling to remember that the source material was a book. And it’s no surprise that the actor-turned-filmmaker populates her entire production with consistently enchanting performances from its rather large cast.
My only nagging complaint is that Gerwig didn’t fix the Beth problem. That deathbed daughter is always the weakest link in Little Women, so much so that I once saw a high school production which turned her endless infirmity into a recurring punchline. “Beth was the best of us,” says Amy at one point. Oh, really? And why is that? She seems like a nice enough girl. And she has a facility with the piano that Gerwig upgrades to a passion for Schumann and Bach. Otherwise, why exactly should we care? She’s bafflingly inspirational to the others in what seems more like an act of charity than clarity. And that’s even more of a false note, considering how Gerwig made Meg so quietly compelling and Amy absolutely fascinating. Then again, maybe it doesn’t matter. Little Women was, is, and always will be the Jo show.