I’m just a woman. And as a woman, there’s no way for me to make my own money. Not enough to earn a living or to support my family, and if I had my own money, which I don’t, that money would belong to my husband the moment we got married. And if we had children, they would be his, not mine. They would be his property, so don’t sit there and tell me that marriage isn’t an economic proposition, because it is. It may not be for you, but it most certainly is for me.
– Florence Pugh as Amy, Little Women (2019)
Lousia May Alcott never married. She was an abolitionist and a feminist and she pushed the boundires of gender-based social norms in a time of zero power for women. In her adaptation of Alcott’s most famous work, Greta Gerwig creates a duality in the characters and the ending that let’s us — the viewers — make up our own minds, while giving Jo the power Alcott herself never relinquished throughout her own life. In an interview with Variety, Gerwig said “I felt if I could give Louisa an ending she actually wanted for Jo 150 years later, then maybe we’ve gotten somewhere.” Progress is slow.
Gerwig’s version of Little Women effortlessly moves us back and forth in time between writer/storyteller Jo’s time working in New York City, and the end of her childhood seven years earlier. This crosscutting between two periods offers us the chance to get to know Jo and her sisters, while also understanding what motivates them. It offers a chance for details to unfold in a way that preserves surprises, and does so in a way that feels natural and authentic, and it never feels preachy about subject matter that in other hands might have felt like a wagging finger. This picture details the realities of being a woman in the 1870’s, and what it took to have any sense of self determination for women of the time.
I was not familiar with the story, but many will already know about writer Jo, the stand-in for Alcott in this semi-autobiographical tale, and her sisters coming-of-age in post civil war America. All four sisters are fully realized in this adaptation, and all represent a different point of view. Jo is the staunch feminist, eschewing the traditional female role, Meg wants to love and be loved, Amy looks for money and stability, while wrestling with the notion of loving the one you’re with, and Beth simply wants to play her music and be part of beauty in the world. Jo thinks her point of view is the right one, and is corrected by her big sister Meg with simplicity that rings true in any time: “Just because my dreams are different than yours doesn’t make them unimportant.”
Cinematographer Yorick Le Saux and Colorist Joe Gawler have created distinct visual palettes for the two time periods, giving the viewer a beautiful shorthand for the time jumps. They help us bask in the beauty of a simpler world, while simultaneously illustrating the extreme challenges of the period for our titular little women. Shot composition and color move the story in the same way the sisters do, offering different points of view, different goals and immersing the viewer in this fully realized world of the past. Show, don’t tell, at it’s very best.
Gerwig is quickly becoming one of those directors with whom it seems every actor wants to work. She deftly melds this famous cast into an ensemble and their individual fame fell to the background moments after their on-screen introductions. Whether Timothée Chalamet as Laurie, or Saoirse Ronan as Jo, or Meryl Streep as Aunt March, I saw only the characters and not the people. An actor in nearly 40 films herself, Gerwig clearly has a talent for bringing a cast together.
The tour-de-force cast all embody their characters brilliantly, but for my money MVP goes to Florence Pugh. Fierce, and jealous of her sister, and desperate to forge her own way, but plagued by questions, Pugh brings a raw reality to Amy. She begins the story as a petulant child, and earns her growth into a woman of wisdom and self-determination.
The film drags ever-so-slightly in the third act, but redeems this minor fault though a perfect ending. In a true rarity of storytelling, Gerwig gives the audience what they want, and gives the characters what they need. These four women had entered my heart and my mind. This picture had me smiling throughout, on the verge of tears more than once, and thinking about the challenges in our world still to be met.
I give Little Women 8.9 out of 10. Go see it.