Writer and director: Greta Gerwig, adapted from the 1868 novel by Louisa May Alcott
Cast: Saoirse Ronan, Emma Watson, Florence Pugh, Eliza Scanlen, Laura Dern, Meryl Streep, Timothée Chalamet, James Norton
2 hrs 15 mins, USA 2019
Watched by Ismay, Muffet and Sarah at the Watershed, and by Diana Hendry and Hamish Whyte at the Crouch End Picture House in London
What a terrific film with which to kick off the new decade: the tender, funny, passionate story of four glorious, loving, high-spirited sisters, the March girls, growing up in genteel poverty in Concord during the American Civil War; over seven years we follow their journeys towards the finding of their authentic grown-up selves.
Ismay: I may have cried from start to finish but from what I could see through my tears the film was as brilliant as I expected. The four sisters are so individual (and brilliantly acted), but the bond they share is unbreakable. There is no love greater than a sister’s love.
Writer and director Greta Gerwig most brilliantly gives us Louisa May Alcott’s own story of becoming a writer – and writing Little Women – to add depth and richness of texture and emotion to the fictional story of Jo March, the second eldest of the four, and her determination to earn her independent living as a writer, and to financially support her mother and sisters.
Saoirse Ronan is mesmerising as tempestuous, tomboyish, clever Jo. (She played the central character, Lady Bird, in Gerwig’s 2018 film of that name.) We see her anguished and lonely in New York, but the (male) notion of the writer as lonely genius is subverted. Jo is helped to find her authentic writing voice by gentle, piano-playing Beth (Eliza Scanlen) during Beth’s dying days. Beth tells Jo she prefers listening to Jo’s stories of everyday life above her stories of duelling and derring-do. And it’s blonde, pretty Amy (Florence Pugh) – favoured by wicked old Aunt March (Meryl Streep) for her looks and her pragmatic understanding of the marriage market – who tells Jo that she doesn’t have to write about important things: rather, that the very act of writing about them makes them important. Including the lives of girls and women.
I found it incredibly moving when towards the end we see through Jo’s eyes the physical creation of the book she has written. In a kind of loving trance we watch the typesetting and printing, the pages pressed, cut and stitched together, the pasting on of the calfskin cover, the title and author’s name stamped into the cover and lightly dusted with gold leaf. Little Women by L. M. Alcott. Glorious!
Diana Hendry: Hamish liked it a lot more than I did! He said the ‘thread’ was about the writing of the book. (SLF: I agree with Hamish, see above.) I thought it a bit too sweet and that the family didn’t look poor enough! When we came home and I found my childhood’s copy of the book, I saw that I’d written at the end ‘poor ending, a bit preachy but otherwise very good’. I must have been eleven at the time and my own sister had just got married. I put her address into my copy of the book so I knew where to find her.
Muffet: I thought the film was well-made and I enjoyed it even tho I couldn’t always catch what they were saying, my hearing not being what it was. It seemed to represent the book quite well, not that it’s one of my favourites. And there was bit too much hugging for me.
All four girls are brilliant! With their hair! And their dresses! Their joyousness and generosity! And yet, as Greta Gerwig herself points out (in an interview with Eliza Berman, courtesy Watershed print-out), the film is centrally and seriously about women, ambition, art and money. And let’s not forget the mother, Marmee (Laura Dern), who famously suggests to her four daughters that they give away their special Christmas breakfast to a poor starving family in the village (it featured as a question on this year’s Christmas University Challenge); she is the one who says ‘I am angry nearly every day of my life’. I didn’t remember that from the book, but Greta Gerwig says that every word of the dialogue is taken either from Alcott’s novel or from her journals or other writings. The film celebrates women’s rage and desire, as well as loving sisterhood.
Louisa May Alcott