There’s nothing little about Greta Gerwig’s rich, warm, bustlingly populated and passionately devoted new tribute to Louisa May Alcott’s classic novel of sisterhood. She revives Little Women as a coming-of-age movie, a marriage comedy, a sibling-rivalry drama – and perhaps most interestingly of all, an autofictional manifesto for writing your own life. This is where fledgling author Jo March must negotiate her terms directly with her mutton-chop whiskered publisher (no agent!). She must enforce her own copyright prerogative. She must decide, having created a heroine so clearly based on herself, if a wedding is the only plausible ending to her story, which gives her a commercial bestseller and a materially comfortable life.
Saoirse Ronan plays the fiercely opinionated and boundlessly energetic Jo, one of four teenage sisters increasingly faced with genteel poverty in 19th-century Massachusetts, their father (Bob Odenkirk) away serving the north’s cause in the civil war. Thoughtful Meg is played by Emma Watson, Florence Pugh is pugnacious, hot-headed Amy, and Eliza Scanlen the delicate, gentle Beth. Their mother, Marmie, is played with style and easy authority by Laura Dern, and the casting brings into view a slight facial resemblance between Dern and Ronan. James Norton plays John Brooke, the diffident, penniless tutor who is to capture Meg’s heart; and Professor Friedrich Bhaer, the middle-aged German academic who is to be Jo’s fatherly suitor-slash-mentor in New York, is reinvented as a considerably younger and dishier Frenchman played by Louis Garrel.
As for the two most legendary characters: cantankerous and wealthy Aunt March (this story’s equivalent of Betsey Trotwood) is played by Meryl Streep. The handsome boy next door Laurie is probably in love with all four of the March girls, and this film shows how they collectively have feelings for him, combining sisterly protectiveness, intense crush, exasperated disdain and One-Directional fan worship. Laurie is played by Timothée Chalamet. Surely, no other casting was possible. It is great to see Chris Cooper playing Laurie’s kindly grandfather.
Gerwig’s treatment of the story has the March girls being played by the same four actors (not splitting them into younger and older versions as is sometimes the case) and structures the story into a mesh of flashbacks, intercutting their girlish episodes at home with their later lives as young women: Jo as the writer in New York, Meg married to John, Amy on a European tour with the formidable aunt who hopes thereby to school her in the reality of the marriage market, and Beth at home where she will meet her own awful fate.
Gerwig’s Little Women have a great collective vitality, always puppyishly hugging and crowding around, while getting into scrapes and putting on theatre shows. They have something of the Brontë sisters or even the Dashwood sisters but with a much more rough-and-ready Americanness. The movie devises a heartbreaking wish-fulfilment-versus-reality double sequence about Beth’s final illness that for a second will have you doubting what you remember.
But the sharpest, fiercest thing about this story is the unspoken, unacknowledged face-off between Jo and Amy, romantically triangulated with Laurie, who is a physically slight figure (slighter than Christian Bale in the 1994 version) impish, puckish, littler than the women who surround him. Jo and Amy aspire to be artists, and interestingly an artistic career is the only professional alternative they can imagine to being a wife and mother. But only Jo will find success creatively. Amy is furthermore guilty of the unpardonable sin of burning Jo’s manuscript in a fit of pique, and being saved from falling into the ice – she is the one who has to get saved, not the saviour – is a redemptive moment that only redoubles Jo’s superiority.
And Laurie is to play a vital part in their drama. Amy (a character that Pugh makes much more tough and grownup than usual) is embittered by Laurie’s proposal of marriage, which comes after he has been rejected by Jo: “I’ve been second to Jo my whole life.” And Chalamet interestingly conveys the temporarily jaded and (we assume) dissolute life that Laurie is pursuing in Paris after the rejection.
Yet, despite a vivid pairing of Jo and Laurie and some great romantic chemistry between Ronan and Chalamet, and, despite it being perfectly obvious that Laurie is a more compellingly romantic catch than Bhaer (however dreamy Garrel may be), we know how things don’t turn out the way we might expect, or want. We might assume that Jo and Laurie should be together, but the movie insists on marriage being not quite the same as a romcom happy ending. Perhaps it is really Meg and John who have this.
This is such a beguiling, generous film from Gerwig. There is a lot of love in it.
• Little Women is released in the US on Christmas Day, in the UK on Boxing Day and in Australia on New Year’s Day
Source: The Guardian