national Arts Festival Banner

Saturday, February 29, 2020


Director Greta Gerwig re-engages with Louisa May Alcott’s beloved novel in this fresh and thoughtful adaptation. (Review: Patrick Compton 9/10).

There have been about 20 adaptations of Little Women in various guises over the last 150 years, in the cinema, theatre and even opera house. In the light of this it is fair to ask whether Greta Gerwig’s new film is strictly necessary.

I am no expert on the Little Women industry, but Gerwig’s adaptation seems to me to break new ground. Firstly she splices two timelines together in a mesh of flashbacks so that we experience the characters in their maturity as well as their youth. This runs the risk of confusing the viewer, but I found this approach not only added a sense of depth to the character narrative but also offered the balm of clarity.

Secondly, Gerwig brilliantly engages with the issue of the status of women in the United States during and immediately after the Civil War (the war took place between 1861-5, but the narrative stretches well into the 1870s).

This matter is starkly captured in the first scene when Jo March (Saoirse Ronan), the central character, first presents her work for publication. The bewhiskered publisher insists that whatever she writes, her heroine’s life story must end in love and marriage.

It is Jo’s rebellion against the seeming inevitability of this platitude that forms one of film’s biggest tensions. Given that Alcott never married and that Jo is her alter-ego, the movie attempts to accommodate both the writer’s feminist vision that women can have a greater life ambition (in this case being a productive artist) and the contrasting reality that a book that excludes such a conventional “happy ending” will not make money.

The solution that Gerwig chooses is fascinating. In both the book and the largely faithful film, Jo rejects the passionate marriage proposal of the man everyone wanted her to end up with, Laurie (Timothee Chalamet), and she runs the risk of becoming a literary spinster.

As we all know, however, Jo reluctantly accepts that marriage is an “economic prospect” and marries off her heroine to an academic, but the actor who plays him is not some dry stick but the thoroughly dishy Louis Garrel.

This romantic ending, however, is played in a meta-fictional way, as if the movie is portraying the author’s somewhat reluctant concession to the realities of book publishing at the time. The real ending, Gerwig suggests, comes afterwards in the film’s final shot when we see Jo behind a glass panel watching with growing excitement as her book is bound and embossed. This, we are led to believe, is her proper happy ending.

Aside from these issues, lovers of the novel will find much to engage them in this movie. I was particularly struck by the sense of joy that Gerwig – and of course her stellar cast – bring to the youthful family scenes in Massachusetts as a Unionist family await the return of their father from war duty.

Aside from the exquisite Ronan, who captures Jo’s headstrong character perfectly, Florence Pugh is convincing as the strong, hot-headed Amy, while Emma Watson is just right as the more conventional older sister, Meg. Eliza Scanlen plays the delicate, gentle Beth with a poignant sense of what might have been without the onset of illness.

Jo remarks mournfully at one stage that she is devastated by the fact that her childhood is over and it is a mark of Gerwig’s film that the audience feels this emotion with equal intensity as the girls branch out into the world.

There is plenty more to enjoy. Little Women also works as a marriage comedy and a sibling rivalry drama, while the notion of romance and – yes – happy endings are also given space.

There is even room for another of Meryl Streep’s brilliant cameos as the cantankerous Aunt March while Laura Dern plays Marmie with a gentle strength that envelops her family in a cloud of love.

Little Women is showing at Gateway Mall, Ballito Junction, Midlands Mall, The Pavilion, Suncoast and Watercrest Mall. Patrick Compton