Caution: Spoiler alerts
As a writer of 500 words or less children’s picture books, I understand how hard it is to construct a satisfying story with all the right elements. So I totally appreciate how difficult it is to write a screenplay for a 2+-hour movie and direct it as well. As I review Greta Gerwig’s Little Women I keep this in mind. I am also not going to compare it to its source material (a book) or to its many other film versions. Each genre is its own art form and should be critiqued based on its own merits.
The movie is told out of order. It starts seven years in the future and goes back and forth in time. Perhaps the director felt the audience would be smart enough based on clues both visual and spoken to recognize which scene was happening when, but I truly had some trouble. And I think the major reason I had this trouble was because of the four actresses playing the four March sisters. I couldn’t figure out how old they were and who was older than the other. I imagined Jo (played marvelously by Saoirse Ronan) was the oldest since she left home to make her way as a writer in New York. But in reality she is second oldest. Meg (played by the ever sincere and histrionic Emma Watson) is oldest since she got to go to a debutant’s ball – made all the more difficult to tell because of the way the movie drifted in and out of time. I thought Beth (played so delicately by Eliza Scanlen) was the baby since she was babied by the other sisters and was the smallest. But in reality Amy (Florence Pugh) was the baby. And here was my biggest problem, because to me Amy was at least 26 years old throughout the entire film. Her calm, low voice belongs to a mature woman. There is a scene were Beth is at the breakfast table feeding a stuffed dolly sitting in a high chair beside her. What age child does that? Five? Six? This version of Beth looked eleven. Way too old to be feeding a dolly. But more fuel for my belief that she was the youngest.
Supporting characters include Meryl Streep who plays a cold and matter of fact rich old aunt who advises Jo to marry well because a woman can’t make it on her own. But Auntie March was doing just that. There was never any piece of dialogue that explained how Auntie March became so wealthy (deceased wealthy husband, anyone?). And the lovely Timothee Chalamet is Laurie, the grandson of the rich man next door, who I had a whole lot of trouble imagining as a love interest. He was rather an androgynous playmate for the sisters. I could see how any of the sisters could love him, but only platonically. Laura Dern plays the ever patient and lovely Marmee. She’s the mother everyone would love to have.
The movie uses a device to point out the realities of rich versus poor by placing a very wealthy family on one side of the March’s family home in Massachusetts and a very poor family on the other side, with the March’s firmly in the middle, not too rich, not too poor but able to get by. The poor family consisted of a mother and five children. Presumably the father was off fighting in the Civil War. But take a good look at this mother. She looked twelve herself. And what social statement is being made by the fact that the March’s made friends with the wealthy family but were only distantly helpful to the poor one?
Greta Gerwig as writer and director takes a couple of opportunities to make very pointed political comments on the plight of women. Amy gets the spotlight as she explains to Laurie quite forcefully that marriage isn’t about love, but is rather a financial relationship where a woman is owned and everything she owns becomes her husband’s property. And Jo gets an overwrought scene where she cries to her mother about how tired she is that women aren’t taken seriously and that they are thought of only as love interests. How can she be “so tired” of this when she is only in her twenties? Each assertion is true for the time, but the way the director chose to show it felt like jarring interruptions to me.
In its disjointed way we learn that Beth is ill. We then learn she became ill much earlier when she contracted scarlet fever and then we bounce back to the present where she is dying. Jo returns to Concord to tend to her sister, sleeping in a chair by her bedside. One scene begins on a closeup of Jo’s sleeping face. Her eyes open and we see what she sees – Beth’s bed is empty. She races downstairs to find Beth sitting and eating with Marmee at the kitchen table. Then Laurie bursts in with a Christmas surprise, Mr. March is home from the war! Kisses and hugs all around. Back to a closeup of Jo’s sleeping face. Her eyes flutter open and again we see what she sees – Beth’s empty bed. This time her race downstairs is different, slow, suspenseful. And at the kitchen table Jo finds Marmee, weeping. And they cry together over this loss. Yes, it is very sad when a child dies. But if I were sleeping next to my dying sister and some bodies came in and spirited a body away wouldn’t I have heard it? Wouldn’t there have been whispers – “No, stand there.” “I’ll carry this end.” “Shh, don’t wake Jo.” “Watch out for the doorframe!” Could you have slept through that? And then there’s the issue of Mr. March’s homecoming. Was the first sequence a dream or was it reality? I felt it was a dream since the director used the device of repeating the face closeup. So if it was a dream then Mr. March’s real homecoming was never celebrated or even noticed. After that scene he was just there.
And after all of Jo’s protestations that she’ll never marry and her life isn’t about love, she goes racing after her professor (who inexplicably has appeared on the March’s doorstep) like a love sick puppy dog. I guess even Greta had to succumb to a happy Hollywood ending. The happiness and good fortune comes complete with Jo being left Auntie March’s house and she and her sisters and brothers in law starting a school in it that is all wonderful and happy and makes good use of all the family’s talents. Seriously. It was just unrealistic to me.
As a writer I adored the almost final scenes in the movie. Jo writes her novel by candlelight in her attic studio – in long hand – and lays the pages out on the floor to edit and reorganize. Then she stands (and I must admit I was standing right beside her) as she watches her printed novel being bound and the cover being lovingly constructed. And I cried with her as the novel was placed into her arms. I had a similar experience many years ago when a magazine I had spent many months and late hours managing arrived in boxes from the printer, and the publisher (my boss) placed the first copy out of the box into my hands. I may not have written every word in that magazine, but I certainly touched and edited every page. I’m sure I wept a little. And I know this is exactly how I will feel when one of my children’s stories is published.
I really wanted to love this movie mainly because it was written and directed by a woman, a rare commodity in Hollywood, and written over 150 years ago by another woman – also a rare event. As a woman writer I wanted to give it all the sisterly love I could. But sadly I could not.
After I’ve said all this I will recommend it, but perhaps you will go with different expectations than I did and enjoy it simply as a lovely movie about the life and loves of four sisters.