We sat next to a young girl and her mother at a preview screening. The girl was well-tuned to social media personalities, with a watch and a t-shirt for her favorite YouTube personality–someone I didn’t know. When I was about her age, I had already read Louisa May Alcott’s “Little Women” and even a young adult biography. Gerwig’s screenplay and direction is most coherent for those familiar with the novel and the novelist. Otherwise, the jumping back and forth is confusing as little visual difference is made between the present and the past.
The film starts in the middle of the actual novel. Jo March is visiting a publisher on behalf of a “friend,” and while he finds her writing interesting he (Tracy Letts) warns her, “If the main character is a girl, make sure she’s married by the end. Or dead, either way.”
Jo Marsh was based on Alcott herself and unlike Jo, she never married and this fact weighs heavily on the meaning of this version of “Little Women.” As Jo March tells the publisher, Mr. Dashwood, “Mr. Dashwood, if I’m going to sell my heroine into marriage for money, I might as well get some of it.” Gerwig’s “Little Women” has it both ways–her heroine has written a semi-autobiographical novel, but real author lives beyond that in the book.
Saoirse Ronan may be Gerwig’s muse, having starred in Gerwig’s 2017 “Lady Bird,” for which she won a Best Actress Golden Globe, but she is miscast as the tall and gawky “Jo” March who has a comical nose and whose one great beauty is her long thick hair. Ronan recently portrayed the titular attractive queen in the 2018 “Mary Queen of Scots.” Ronan is either beautiful or she is not. In “Little Women” her hair may be long, but it is not thick. We’re asked to accept that her family considers her hair her one great beauty, but this is not what we see.
If you see photos of Alcott herself, you’ll see that she has thick, dark hair with a large nose and deep-set eyes. She did have a romance with the Polish Ladislas “Laddie” Wisniewski and reportedly modeled Laurie after him, but she also 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 with so many pretty girls and never once the least bit with any man.”
When the book “Little Women” begins, Jo is 16. At the end she is over 30 (close to Ronan’s real age) when she accepts the proposal of the German Professor Bhaer. In this film, Bhaer becomes French, played by the 36-year-old French actor Louis Garrel, who takes no pains to fit the description of the stout Bhaer from the book.
Amy is the youngest at 12 when the novel begins and she is described as having blonde hair, blue eyes, being pale and slender. Played by the 23-year-old Florence Pugh, she never seems 12 nor will she ever be considered slender. The leap between 12 and 14 (Beth’s age at the beginning of the novel and Eliza Scanlen who plays her is 20) and early twenties takes girls to women and that isn’t convincingly portrayed here.
The narrative jumps back and forth with little physical change in between and it seems almost has if time hasn’t really passed at all.
Gerwig does catch the exuberance and tumultuous joy of the March household headed by Marmee (Laura Dern) and contrasts well with the silent mourning of the Laurence household headed by Mr. James Laurence (Chris Cooper). Mr. Laurence has custody of his grandson, Theodore “Laurie” Laurence, played with tousled-hair romanticism by Timothée Chalamet. The chemistry between Chalamet and Ronan is clear, but between Pugh and Chalamet, less so.
The ensemble of Ronan’s Jo, Emma Watson’s Meg, Pugh’s Amy and Scanlen’s Beth capture the ideal sisterhood–not saintly, but definitely always loving even when angered at each other. The female roles are all sympathetically portrayed, even the stuffy old lady, Aunt March gets a more likable portrayal.
Meryl Streep plays Aunt March with more glee and wit than is usually allowed. Aunt March is old and rich, but she’s not stupid. She’s sensible, but not bitter. Money has given her freedom that the March girls don’t have but could have and, in reality, it is success that gave Louisa May Alcott greater freedom than was usually associated with women of her class during her lifetime but it also gave her responsibilities. These responsibilities have yet to weigh her or her avatar Jo down.
It is lovely to see Bob Odenkirk in a role that is neither sleazy or pathetic. He’s patient, kind and miles or centuries away from the Saul Goodman we’ve come to love-hate. He’s also more saintly than Alcott’s own father.
Gerwig’s “Little Women” wants us to accept Louisa May Alcott on her terms, but still succumbs to the commercial romanticism that it seems to mock or at least wink at, giving us a pretty Jo and a handsome, younger Bhaer, instead of finding a plain Jo and a bearish Bhaer. Women might be independent and unmarried, finding joy in spinsterhood, but they still must be pretty.