What makes Oscar Best Picture nominee Little Women so good is because it’s romantic. When Mr. Dashwood (Tracy Letts) argues that Jo March’s (Saoirse Ronan) book should not end with the lead character a spinster because it won’t sell, Jo replies sarcastically, “I suppose marriage has always been an economic proposition. Even in fiction.” Mr. Dashwood gently corrects her: “It’s romance!”
Romance. As simple as that. We thrive in romantic tales, and Little Women has plenty of romance. Romance with writing, painting, music, men, ambition and life itself.
Greta Gerwig’s (Lady Bird) 2019 adaptation of the beloved Louisa May Alcott semi-autobiography is infused with passion. It’s robust and spirited. The writer-director recalibrates the timeless period drama about the four March sisters with so much heart and soul, with a touch of modern-day sensibilities.
I have never read the book, and so my point of reference is Gillian Armstrong’s 1994 adaptation, with Winona Ryder as Jo, which I have watched more than a dozen times, crying every time Jo receives the printed galley proofs of her manuscript. I don’t think there’s an aspiring writer who has not connected with Jo, whose ambition and feminist mindset override her desire for romantic love and marriage. And when Jo finally achieves the dream, holding in her hands her published novel, her kind of happiness and fulfillment cannot seem to equate to matrimonial bliss.
Gerwig reshuffles the story and tells it in a nonlinear manner. She begins the movie in present-day 1868, with the March sisters living separately from one another. Second child Jo is in Manhattan, selling her byline-free short stories to a local publication and is the object of affection of Professor Bhaer (Louis Garrel); the youngest, Amy (Florence Pugh), is in Europe with Aunt March (Meryl Streep), honing her craft in painting and running into childhood crush Laurie (Timothée Chalamet); the eldest, Meg (Emma Watson), is married with two children and burdened by poverty; and third child Beth (Eliza Scanlen) is an invalid, her health deteriorating.
An urgent telegram from their mother, Marmee (Laura Dern), prompts Jo to return to her hometown in Concord, Massachusetts. And so Gerwig uses Marmee’s summon as a springboard for the audience to revisit the heartwarming story of the Little Women, taking us back to that small, cozy cottage during the winter holidays, where the March sisters live a life of genteel poverty and forging a special relationship with their wealthy neighbor, Mr. Laurence (Chris Cooper), and his aimless grandson, Laurie.
The present day is told chronologically, beginning in 1868 and ending in 1870. And each significant event within that two-year period would trigger a memory from their old life in Concord, when the March sisters are still hopeful young girls living under one roof with Marmee and Hannah (Jayne Houdyshell). And so the audience is taken to a nostalgic trip back in time, in various points in the past, to gain insight into each sister’s temperament, values and dreams, and to help us understand their present-day situations.
Following the rearranged timeline might be a little daunting, but if Alcott’s story is deeply embedded in you, then there won’t be any confusion. Visual clues will tell you that the present day is bathed in cool shades of blue, with Jo’s hair in a low, messy bun; while scenes from the past glow with a golden palette with Jo’s hair wild and free.
This juxtaposition of the past and the present is not done for gimmick, but is actually a clever decision to rebrand Little Women into something fresh yet still faithful to Alcott’s narrative. This is the seventh movie adaptation, and so most of us already know the story. Watching it again in the correct sequence of events would make it too predictable and redundant, whereas going back and forth through time offers some surprises and enhances the emotional resonance of each milestone in the lives of the March sisters.
Gerwig’s Oscar-nominated adapted screenplay is heartfelt and perceptive and drops plenty of brilliant quotable quotes. She profoundly understands women and artists — specifically female artists, and this is emotionally comprehended in her two major characters, Jo and Amy, both strong and career-driven types, and who live at a time when marriage is the only way for women to achieve economic stability.
Gerwig’s Little Women is more “marriage story” than her partner Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story. Marriage is always a hot topic here; its romance and trappings, promises and threats, its necessity and happiness. Marriage is always haunting the sisters — even Jo’s book has to end in marriage.
The only thing that renders Little Women imperfect is the casting of the March sisters. While Ronan and Pugh give remarkable performances and are a perfect fit for their roles, Watson’s Meg and Scanlen’s Beth are miscast, as both look younger than Pugh’s Amy.
There’s also a problem with the womanly and deep-voiced Pugh in the flashbacks; she looks way too mature as a preadolescent Amy. That classroom scene is laughable, with Pugh surrounded by giggling classmates that look 20 years younger than her.
But you easily forgive this poor casting decision, because the story sweeps you off your feet and keeps putting a lump in your throat or make you cry. And the characters soon grow on you, making you forget their unconvincing ages and Watson’s irritating camera-conscious acting.
Alcott’s timeless drama about coming of age, family, life and death, dashed hopes and realized dreams — and all the love and romance in between — feels brand new in this 21st-century remake, surpassing the 1994 version for its emotional power. It more than gives justice to the treasured classic story — it makes it even more beautiful.
4.5 out of 5 stars
Opens 19 February in Philippine cinemas