Directed by Greta Gerwig
Starring: Saoirse Ronan, Emma Watson, Florence Pugh, Eliza Scanlen, Timothee Chalamet
Running time: 2hrs 15m
The 1994 film of Little Women, starring Winona Rider, Christian Bale and Clare Danes was a really big deal in my house when our kids were growing up. We watched it avidly and regularly, revelling in the glorious snowy scenes in New England, and loving the early feminist role model of the completely splendid Jo March. It still means a huge amount to my children now, so when we proposed this as one of our Christmas family cultural outings, now that all four of us are fully fledged adults, there was more than a little trepidation that it wouldn’t measure up to the earlier version, wrapped, as it had become, in our own family mythology.
We needn’t have worried. We left the cinema two and a half hours later, buoyed by the wonderful experience we had just had. The world seemed a nobler, kinder, more splendid place than it had when we had stepped into the darkness earlier in the evening. Gerwig makes a bold decision with the structure of the plot, interleaving the later parts if the novel with the first half, and for the most part it works, showing us explicitly the adults the younger girls would become and the different ways they dealt with the realities of the adult world as women. Or not become in the case of Beth, whose tragedy would melt the heart of the Scroogiest of us, familiar though her part of the story is. On one or two occasions the structural leaps created a slightly furrowed brow as we had to focus to be certain which time frame a particular scene was in, but working hard in the cinema is no bad thing. I like a film that makes demands on its audience.
The other controversy was the casting of Louis Garrel as Friedrich Bhaer. Bhaer is explicitly old and unattractively foreign in the book. His appeal is in his refreshing attitude to Jo as a person and an artist. Here he is an altogether hunkier presence than Louisa May Alcott probably envisaged and although one can bemoan the superficiality of our celebrity airbrushed age, the movie does have to shift tickets and I for one can get behind the idea that bookish, unconventional, geeky types end up with the hot actor, as if it happens all the time. Which it doesn’t.
Ronan is wonderful as Jo, but then Jo is such a magnificent creation that anyone could seem impressive playing her. Anyone plucked from the pages of Hello magazine and dropped into the role would seem like a gritty feminist icon. (you can tell I’m too scared to name someone for fear of revealing my absolute ignorance of contemporary popular trash culture. I leave that to you.) The real revelation is Florence Pugh who, with Gerwig’s sure touch, transforms Amy March into a complex and sympathetic character, negotiating her passage through a man’s world without apology. Gerwig handles the contractual and financial nature of marriage for women explicitly, illuminating the relationships of the characters and the dilemmas faced by Alcott herself when trying to get published in 1860s New York.
It’s a wonderful film. Go and see it while it’s still showing. And when you do, wonder for a moment how on earth Gerwig was not nominated for an Oscar. It would have been enough to drive Alcott herself mad.