In my review of Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird I wondered whether we might see Saoirse Ronan’s eponymous character in a future film. To an extent, playing Jo March in Gerwig’s adaptation of Little Women, Ronan is embodying another incarnation of the same character, insofar as the film seems to be another veiled autobiography for this writer-turned-director. Casting Ronan a second time, if the gossip is correct, was not Gerwig’s original intention, but since the actor insisted on playing her, it was such a ‘Jo’ thing to do that the director couldn’t say no.
It was a wise move, alongside three more extremely strong female actors cast as the other March sisters. Curiously, none of the lead actors is American, and every so often – particularly with Emma Watson’s ‘Meg’ – the accents slip. Nonetheless, it’s a controlled and confident performance from Watson; likewise, the ailing ‘Beth’ (Eliza Scanlen) is played with delicacy and pathos. Florence Pugh’s portrayal of the ‘difficult’ sister, Amy, is spectacularly strong, and might have eclipsed Saoirse Ronan had the film focused less on Jo as the chief protagonist (more on that anon…) but overall, the ensemble was near-perfect.
The rest of the cast was pretty strong too: Laura Dern as the mother, ‘Marmee,’ providing a linchpin for the four girls (in both character and acting) while Meryl Streep, as the irascible old Aunt March brings a wicked humour, with lines like “I may not always be right, but I am never wrong” delivered perfectly. Occasionally the sheer vivacity and tactility of the girls makes for some clumsy jump-cuts, and there are a few continuity glitches, but the pace and vigour of the film defies the long running time of nearly 2 ½ hours.
With such excellence in female acting and direction it seems unfair to unveil the Bechdel Test at this point, but that is, really, the point of the book. Each of the young women’s lives are governed by their relationships with men – even the headstrong Jo who refuses to marry. Writing the book, Louisa May Alcott was persuaded by her publisher to marry off Jo, but I won’t spoil the plot in that regard.
That said, the significant men in the girls’ lives are far weaker characters – maybe purposely so. The foppish neighbour, ‘Laurie’ – while played with flair by Timothée Chalamet – comes close to over-acting; meanwhile, the mysterious Friedrich Bhaer (Louis Garrel) appears out of the blue at the end in a scene almost as cringe-worthy as that bit in Love Actually when Andrew Lincoln turns up at Keira Knightley’s door with cue-cards.
Perhaps Gerwig has gone for a feel-good film with a few weepy bits, plenty of laughs, strong female leads, and enough snow to make it perfect for Christmas viewing. To quote Barry Norman: “And why not!” Nevertheless, those who were expecting a stronger feminist reading of this multiply-adapted book will not be disappointed either – if they look for the signs.
First, while the lavish style and cinematography suited the period portrayed, the language and idiolect was clearly contemporary, and as such, brought the message of the book forward by the 150 years since it was written. Also, Gerwig’s rom-com ending is cleverly masked by a meta-device in which she turns Jo into Alcott. She becomes both protagonist and author – surely a reflection of Gerwig’s life, and another perfect reason for casting the same actor who played Lady Bird. Furthermore, this is the perfect smokescreen for the eternal queston: did she/didn’t she marry?
Jo, like Alcott, gives in to the demands of the publisher but – crucially in these days of ‘inclusion rider’ contracts – she refuses to let him buy the copyright. These conversations between her and Mr Dashwood (Tracy Letts) bookend the film, but what comes between is possibly the most contentious element. Choosing to present a thoroughly dis-jointed, non-linear plot might divide audiences, or attract criticism.
Yes, it was a touch chronologically confusing at times, but the constant jumping back and forth gave Gerwig greater opportunity to score some subtle points. Juxtaposing wedding and funeral scenes was a clever, if cheeky, coupling. The way storylines topple over each other (for example, Beth’s two episodes of childhood and adult illness that run almost concurrently) allow for a deeper emotional reading, as well as intellectual and visceral. After all, as Jo says: “Women, they have minds, and they have souls, as well as just hearts.”
This is the crux of the film, which she backs up with: “And they’ve got ambition, and they’ve got talent, as well as just beauty.” This is an ambitious adaptation, for sure, and sumptuously beautiful as a piece of art. For its talent, one needs to see the whole picture. This is no simple coming-of-age rom-com in which, viewer, she marries him. If you want an easy-to-watch Christmas film that goes from A to B in a nice tidy plot with a happy ending, you’re better off watching a film made by a man, probably Richard Curtis.
In the spirit of female story-telling, using the feminist trope of patchwork quilting, this is a carefully stitched blanket of vignettes, characters, and themes that tell so much more than the words on the page, the pictures on the screen, or even the female-strong credits. It is an insight into the mind of a woman; an artist who has something important to say, whether or not men are listening.
Little Women is out on general release around the UK