Marriage, money and inequality haunt the four March sisters of Greta Gerwig’s strangely delightful ‘Little Women’

December 30, 2019

By Matthew E. Milliken
Dec. 30, 2019

Little Women, Greta Gerwig’s adaptation of the classic Louisa May Alcott novel, is a charming chronicle of a Massachusetts family, particularly the challenges faced by the four young daughters.

Alcott’s book, published in two volumes in 1868 and 1869, was based on her own life. In reality, her family was beset by poverty and hardship, and the writing of the novel for which she became famous was strictly undertaken for cash. “I plod away although I don’t enjoy this sort of things,” The Sun reports her as having (ungrammatically) confessed in her diary.

Gerwig, here making her third directorial outing, and her second as writer-director after Lady Bird, casts proceedings in a decidedly more glamorous light. The costumes are glorious; the March family’s home is handsome and spacious, if a bit blandly decorated; and writer stand-in Jo March (Saoirse Ronan) is fiercely proud of her story, which she sells to a mercenary publisher named Dashwood (Tracy Letts) in the movie’s final act. (She also begins writing it on her own initiative, unlike in real life.)

I can’t speak to the faithfulness of Gerwig’s screenplay to the original text, never having read Alcott’s book nor seen any of the numerous movie and TV adaptations — there are roughly two dozen dating back more than a century, according to the Internet Movie Database. Clearly, however, Gerwig has fashioned an entertaining movie that primarily celebrates the March sisters and their mother. Yes, the picture is a bit too eager to gloss over the dire realities of life in Massachusetts in the late 19th century, but it’s capable of evoking pathos and provoking thought in its best moments.

The movie pursues converging storylines. The latter-day narrative is set around 1870 and takes place over the course of a few months as the dispersed March sisters are drawn together by circumstances both dreary and happy. Incidents from this time frame are interspersed, often as Jo’s flashbacks, with episodes starting in about 1863 and ending around 1867 or 1868.

The four sisters each have a hair color and a talent. The elder two are Meg (Emma Watson) and Jo, respectively a brunette aspiring thespian and a honey-blonde scribbler; the younger are blonde artist Amy (Florence Pugh) and redheaded piano player Beth (Eliza Scanlin). The brood is overseen by the saintly philanthropist “Marmee” (Laura Dern, practically glowing at points) and beloved servant Hannah (Jayne Houdyshell).

The quartet of girls — “little women,” as their father fondly calls them in a letter home from the Civil War — share an intense bond that’s strengthened by their childhood forays into drama, which seemingly utilize each daughter’s talents. Jo disparages the rituals of courtship that she knows threaten to sunder their sorority. Despite her wishes, and the awareness — voiced by Amy — that marriage is an economic contract that subordinates a woman to a man, as in other areas of life, time marches on. The rich neighbor’s grandson Theodore “Laurie” Laurence (Timothée Chalamet) takes a shine to Jo; Meg starts to explore her blossoming physical charms and her interest in men.

And even independent Jo, who moves to New York to support herself with income from tutoring and freelance writing work, finds herself drawn to a fellow resident of her boarding house: Friedrich Bhaer (Louis Garrel), the tall, dark and brooding professor who isn’t above cutting a rug once in a while.

The trousers-wearing Jo is torn between pleasing authority and defying it. She wants her wealthy Aunt March (Meryl Streep, relishing each one of her character’s withering expressions) to underwrite a trip to Europe, but Jo isn’t quite willing to put in the work needed to win over her would-be patroness. Jo is put off writing by Bhaer’s criticism, in an anecdote that seems to have been included to gin up a bit of narrative tension; encouragement from a sister revives her passion for story-telling and ultimately leads to (the movie slyly implies) a best-selling narrative that enthralls generations.

Jo similarly holds warring views on the subject of domesticity. A family tragedy — one that other relatives weather thanks in part to their spouses — leaves Jo grappling with intense loneliness. The headstrong sister even finds herself wondering whether she was rash to have rejected Laurie’s proposal.

The other girls face comparable dilemmas, especially Amy, who pursues an artistic education while wooing a strong-jawed Englishman with a healthy pocketbook.

There’s no question how the Marches feel about money, however: They’re for it, and for the independence it provides. This appreciation for wealth is heightened by their immediate neighbor, the kindly and well-to-do patriarch Mr. Laurence (Chris Cooper), and by their mother’s generosity toward charity cases, which on one occasion causes the family to forgo Christmas gifts as well as that morning’s breakfast.

Little Women is a comedy in the classic sense, in that there’s a happy ending. It’s a curiously optimistic movie, and as such feels out of step with Donald Trump’s America as experienced by people who are or who sympathize with the poor and the non-white. But the fantasy Gerwig depicts is an enticing one, and her talented cast makes everything seem quite real.

Perhaps that dichotomy — a lack of authenticity that nonetheless inspires excitement — makes it Trumpian after all. Regardless, I found Little Women an utterly enchanting feminist tale.

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