Little Women - 2019
Updated: Jul 21, 2020
The most wonderful thing about Gerwig's Little Women is that it doesn't replace the film adaptations of Louisa May Alcott's novel that we've already been given. Instead, it offers something new, something different. Gerwig celebrates Alcott's work from a fresh angle, and with relevance to the 21st century.
The film opens with a quote from Alcott, reading, "I've had lots of troubles, so I write jolly tales". I grew up a lover of Little Women. It was the first classic that I ever finished. I stayed up late several nights in a row in my grandparent's guestroom, inhaling chapter after chapter. I woke up in the morning, on more than one occasion, with the book resting on my face, my nose providing a makeshift bookmark in the middle of the night, when I'd literally read to the point of passing out. Here's the thing though. Through all of my late night reading and my viewing of various film adaptations, I've never found this story to be a "jolly tale". Sure, it has moments of joy, but it's also true that parts of it are sad. It's a representation of reality, and all in all things turn out okay, but it's certainly not a "happily ever after" kind of tale. Ergo my confusion at the use of this quote to commence the film. However, at the conclusion of Gerwig's adaptation, I felt that the joy in this story, truly is foregrounded through both her writing and direction. The story remains, for the most part, the same. However, Gerwig tells the story in a non-linear fashion. Through the way in which the pieces are placed together, Alcott's "jolly" moments are highlighted and in the end you feel truly happy for most of the March family.
One of the most brilliant aspects of this rendition of Little Women is that every character is both important and represented in a three-dimensional fashion. The acting is grand, there is no doubt about it, and I am hopeful that the film's cast will continue to receive nominations for their performances. However, Gerwig's writing and direction are what truly make a difference in the recreation of the characters. There is a moment towards the beginning of the story, where the character of Marmee (Laura Dern) comes home on Christmas morning, and asks the girls to give up their Christmas breakfast for a family who are living in poverty close by. In the novel, the girls are chattering away when Marmee enters through the front door and informs them of this local family and their need. In Gerwig's film, the girls are chattering away, when the camera cuts to outside the house. Marmee is approaching. She wipes a single tear from her eye and we can tell she is deep in thought. She enters the house, and as she takes off her outer layers of clothing, Dern noticeably shakes off her emotions and changes her facial expression, to one that reflects contentment and happiness instead. Marmee is hiding her stress from her girls. The addition of this one shot outside of the house, suddenly transforms Marmee from a charitable and wise mother-type, to a realistic person who doesn't just exist fulfil her role as "mother", but also as a human being who cares deeply about other people. It communicates to audiences the challenges that come with being a parent, and the sacrifices that Marmee makes in her life. Not only does she donate her breakfast, but she chooses not to burden her daughters with her feelings. This is just one example. And you may think of me as biased. This isn't the first time that I've raved about the un-DERN-iable talents of Laura Dern (yes, I'm recycling that pun - let's make it trend #underniablytalented). However, Gerwig's ability to make the characters more human extends beyond Marmee. It's true, Amy is still Amy in this film. She still engages in behaviours that will make you shake your head. However, for some reason, the way she is framed in the 2019 version, makes her more understandable than ever before. Furthermore, for the first time ever, the similarities between Marmee and Meg are more noticeable. Both are portrayed as women who are in love, and who love their children, but who have made repeated sacrifices for their families. When reading the novel, I'm certain that many felt a connection with Jo. However, Gerwig's direction allows audiences to connect with every female character, in ways they may never have been able to before.
It isn't surprising that Little Women explores feminist themes. Within the trailer, Jo explicitly states, "Women have minds and souls as well as hearts, ambition and talent as well as beauty and I'm sick of being told that love is all a woman is fit for". This moment, fairly explicitly explores the troubles of women and the idea that they are often underestimated. Although modern women may not wholly and completely relate to the idea of marrying for money, or indeed the idea that all they were born to do was fall in love and pop out babies, it is undoubtedly still the case that women are often even now portrayed in film as wanting a "happily ever after" with Mr. Right. Jo remains relevant in the 21st century, as she still represents women who don't necessarily want this, or at the very least, want to focus on career, travel or another goal first. Equally as important is Marmee's line, "I'm angry nearly every day of my life". Jo is surprised at this admission, and we are reminded of that earlier scene, when Marmee hides her tears from her daughters. This line represents the strength of mothers and women everywhere who make sacrifices for their children every day. This line isn't a new addition either; these aren't Gerwig's words. Louisa May Alcott wrote this line in 1868, and had I not double-checked this fact, I may not have believed it myself, as these words feel like they fit just as well in the 21st century as they did in the 19th.
My only reservation about this film, is the casting of Louis Garrel as Friedrich Bhaer. He's a very handsome actor, and doesn't seem to line up with Alcott's original vision of Bhaer. In the novel he's described as "a regular German - rather stout, with brown hair tumbled all over his head, a bushy beard, good nose, the kindest eyes I ever saw, and a splendid big voice". Furthermore, "his clothes were rusty, his hands were large, and he hadn't a really handsome feature in his face, except his beautiful teeth". Despite his looks, in the novel, Jo ends up marrying this man. I always figured that it was more for his intellect than anything else. Alcott herself has stated that she didn't want Jo to marry (especially Laurie), but fans were asking for it so much that, "I didn’t dare refuse and out of perversity went and made a funny match for her”. Even as a child, I always got the distinct impression, that Jo may be gay. She connects with Bhaer on an intellectual level, but it's certainly not an instant physical attraction between them. By casting a more attractive actor in this film, I felt as though this muddied the waters of Jo's character in some ways. She rejects the attractive and fun Laurie, only to end up with the attractive, and French, albeit rather-average-at-giving-feedback Bhaer. In an interview, Alcott once said, "I am more than half persuaded that I am a man’s soul, put by some freak of nature into a woman’s body…because I have fallen in love in my life with so many pretty girls and never once the least with any man". It's not hard to see this reflected in Jo, in the first chapter of the book, Jo says, "I can't get over my disappointment in not being a boy". Gerwig includes this line in her film, and the ending is left somewhat ambiguous, showcasing Jo holding her book on her own; a final display of her independence. However, I still can't shake the feeling that the choice to display the "under the umbrella" chapter, in which she rushes after a much more handsome Bhaer for her happily ever after, may have misconstrued Alcott's character for modern audiences.
This film made me laugh, cry and feel a whole host of emotions. It's a fresh take on a classic. I loved Gerwig's non-linear style, as the juxtaposition of scenes in the past and present added new meaning to an old story. I've read reviews that state that those who enjoy Alcott's story, shouldn't watch this film, but I wholeheartedly disagree. Not only does Gerwig tell this tale with her own style, she adds a depth I've never seen before.