Little Women

****

Reviewed by: Anne-Katrin Titze

Little Women
"The garments are liberating, positioning the wearer as subject, not object of a gaze that evaluates the body."

Greta Gerwig began her directorial debut Lady Bird with a quote from Joan Didion about Christmas in Sacramento. Her Little Women, which received five BAFTA nominations on Tuesday, also starts with a quote, one by Louisa May Alcott herself. As if to say, we stay with the novel’s author’s original text and the updates will not be of the verbal kind.

Two types of audience will have a different experience puzzling together the pieces of Gerwig’s adaptation, edited by Nick Houy (Lady Bird, Jonah Hill’s Mid90s), shot by Yorick Le Saux (Olivier Assayas’s longtime cinematographer, Claire Denis’ High Life) and scored by Alexandre Desplat (BAFTA and Oscar-winning composer for Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape Of Water and Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel, and another BAFTA for Tom Hooper’s The King's Speech).

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Those of us who know the book and previous movie versions well, may marvel at some daring timeline choices, whereas those who never encountered the March family before, will probably pose themselves other questions of development. Gerwig scrambles the chronology drastically from a linear tale to thematic circles. “I can’t believe childhood is over,” the sisters lament as a wedding and a funeral stamp time.

Of course she begins with Jo (Saoirse Ronan) the writer and protagonist, the one played with so much poise and energy, longing and free-spirit by Katharine Hepburn in George Cukor’s Oscar-nominated 1933 version. The adult Jo here is face-to-face with a New York publisher and editor named Dashwood, played by Tracy Letts, with his trademark Lettsian mix of sarcasm and goodwill. He crosses out entire pages of the writing.

And then, as a shock to Jo, accepts her story, which she, hands covered in ink stains, claims was written by a friend. Filled with immense joy of achievement, Jo flies and hops down the street, as if she were doubling Greta Gerwig’s own run-dance in Noah Baumbach’s Frances Ha. Nothing has changed on that front since the Civil War. Recognition is recognition.

Next, when Jo enters the boarding house in New York City, where she lives in the position of a governess, an episode late in the novel and early in the film, there is Louis Garrel as Friedrich Bhaer, a fellow lodger who will play an important part in our heroine’s future, we can already tell.

Bhaer, a professor who emigrated to the US from Germany in the novel has been played by the Hungarian Paul Lukas in 1933, by Italian Rossano Brazzi in Mervyn LeRoy’s 1949 film (with June Allyson, Elizabeth Taylor, Janet Leigh, and Margaret O’Brien) and by Irishman Gabriel Byrne in Gillian Armstrong’s 1994 Little Women. So having a Frenchman in the role that asks for brooding Teutonic masculinity, combined with seemingly irresistible rudeness, falls right in line with the long history of internationally diverse casting choices for Bhaer. Garrel’s extra-long pauses distinguish his professor. “I thought you wanted honesty” he says, after telling Jo that her stories are no good.

Film versions of Little Women are a bit like favourite pants, or maybe better in this case, a skirt. The same kind of garment but it makes all the difference how and when and by whom it was designed. Speaking of clothes, Jacqueline Durran, the costume designer, had - so we heard, images of dresses by Batsheva Hay on her mood board.

The clothes hit a spot of longing right now. The individualistic knits and abundant amounts of fabric protect the women in this film and do make them less 'little' in various aspects. For one, the garments are liberating, positioning the wearer as subject, not object of a gaze that evaluates the body. Remember the scenes in David Fincher’s The Social Network that speak about how Facebook started out with college boys comparing women to farm animals?

When Meg (Emma Watson), the oldest of the four March sisters in Little Women at a party descends the stairs in a borrowed pink satin ballgown, it is clear that she made the decision to impersonate for fun and for a while a kind of Disney flamingo. (The dress is not yellow, but Gerwig seems to give a small nod to Watson’s turn as Belle in Beauty And The Beast here).

Jo’s sister Amy (Florence Pugh), meanwhile is abroad in France to study painting and accompanying Aunt March. Meryl Streep fills every breath of her character with so much nuance, oscillating between mischief and ennui, wisdom, class privilege and resentment, that you’d wish for an entire spin-off on her life. On this trip to Paris, Amy runs into Laurie (Timothée Chalamet), the Marchs’ rich neighbor in Massachusetts, who had just been turned down by Jo and is licking, rather successfully, his wounds.

After quickly being introduced to Meg - buying 20 yards of pale green fabric and hugging her two kids, the film jumps back in time seven years, close to the beginning of the novel. We get to see the four March girls, Jo, Meg, Amy, and Beth (Eliza Scanlen) interact. Their quarrels, the performance of Jo’s play The Witches' Curse and other over-the-top shenanigans unfortunately feel a bit strained, as if the actors were told to 1, 2, 3, Go! 1, 2, 3, Go! Have fun now!

The same stagy hilarity applies to another scene, prominently featured in the misguided US trailer, in which Laurie and Jo mockingly dance together outside on the porch after she scorched her dress. This broad signalling of sentiment does not do the film justice. The less exuberant, the more truthful it feels.

Chris Cooper, who plays Laurie’s grandfather, sporting a very apt moustache, takes special interest in Beth, whom the sisters see as the best one of them all. She is often sickly and plays the piano. There is a sense of the controlled-creepy in their interactions, a nuance I have never noticed in any of the other versions.

Laura Dern’s Marmee, the mother of the clan, is trying to keep some kind of control and sanity under strenuous circumstances. Her husband (Bob Odenkirk in a fresh take on the role) is mostly away, and recovering from the Civil War in a distant hospital and the girls, as lovely as they are, are also a handful to deal with, feed and clothe and educate. During a conversation in which Jo admires her mother’s calm, Marmee admits to “feeling angry nearly every day of my life,” which is taken verbatim from Alcott’s novel.

Do you want to be loved or respected or something else entirely? Little Women looks into the protagonists’ heads and hearts. It also shows the great social disconnect that exists in walking distance. The Marches are situated right between a starving family living in a hovel nearby and the Laurence mansion next door.

When Marmee convinces her daughters to sacrifice their Christmas breakfast and bring it to their suffering neighbours, a much more lavish feast arrived from the house next door, waiting on their table upon their return. Karma, working so ridiculously directly, is part of the novel, but in Gerwig’s film it comes across less charming than infuriating in its indirectness of helping the other. The citrus yellow scarf worn by Meg is wrapped around a baby for warmth for a moment, but on their way back through the snow, she wears it again herself. What could be a simple continuity glitch does nevertheless reinforce how temporary a gesture it was.

When Jo sells her hair for good reason, the effect pierces us on different levels. On the one hand, this acts as a reminder that her hair, part of her body, at this point is all she has to sell. With this she resembles the sisters of Hans Christian Andersen’s Little Mermaid who sell their hair for a dagger and ultimately give their sister a chance at an immortal soul. When Jo cries over her short cut, there is also something frivolous about the regret that does not make her more relatable.

Amy and Jo’s feud is central in Gerwig’s version. Furious to be left out, Amy, the youngest, burns Jo’s manuscript in revenge. The betrayals’ consequences play out in a strong scene on thin ice. There is a lot to take home from this film. On the practical side, the Marches’ great crochet shopping nets, beautiful, sustainable, and ready to become a trend.

Reviewed on: 08 Jan 2020
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Little Women packshot
Adaptation of the Louisa May Alcott classic.

Director: Greta Gerwig

Writer: Greta Gerwig, based on the novel by Louisa May Alcott

Starring: Saoirse Ronan, Emma Watson, Florence Pugh, Eliza Scanlen, Laura Dern, Timothée Chalamet, Tracy Letts, Bob Odenkirk, James Norton, Louis Garrel, Jayne Houdyshell, Chris Cooper, Meryl Streep, Rafael Silva, Mason Alban

Year: 2019

Runtime: 135 minutes

BBFC: U - Universal

Country: US

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