Critic After Dark

Little Women
Directed by Greta Gerwig

(WARNING: plot of novel and film adaptations
discussed in explicit detail)

HAVE not read Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, alas, but there have been enough adaptations to cement its reputation as a beloved literary classic, actress-turned-filmmaker Greta Gerwig’s being the latest.

Gerwig has upped her game from her previous Lady Bird, taking favorite performers (Saoirse Roman, Timothée Chalamet) and applying them to the distant past (the American Civil War and its aftermath), to a famed author’s sensibilities. Not an easy task, I’d say.

Story’s simple enough — about the March family, its loving matriarch Marmee (Laura Dern) her four carefully differentiated daughters: passionate Jo (Roman) who aspires to be a working writer; quiet Meg (Emma Watson) who is content with married domesticity; bedridden Beth (Eliza Scanlen) who has a talent for piano and a weak disposition; equally passionate Amy (Florence Pugh) who loves the finer (read: more expensive) things in life. Orbiting the sun of this family are Laurie Laurence (Chalamet), their wealthier next-door neighbor, and their formidable Aunt March (Meryl Streep).

Gerwig takes an intelligent but respectful approach, her most radical change being to shuffle the novel’s time scheme — it’s a beloved classic after all, familiar to many if not all. She uses a different look for the different time periods: a honeyed sunset light for the childhood scenes, a silvered wintry light for the later more sombre scenes.

The rearranging keeps you on your toes, though you eventually realize the shape of the narrative, how the March family enjoyed a financially constricted if generous childhood (they are resolutely Christian, and actively practice charity on their even more destitute neighbors), how their later years are marked with shifting attachments and reluctantly surrendered ideals. If Gerwig doesn’t totally lose you with the later scenes — keeping them distinct from the childhood sequences and still managing to convey a sense of confused priorities — that’s her achievement.

Gerwig does the most justice to the character of Amy, usually depicted as a spoiled brat — as Pugh portrays her she’s as fiercely intelligent as Jo, is aware of the constraints imposed by a patriarchal society, is determined to do what she can to rise in that society, on its terms.

All that said… not a big fan. You get the sense that Gerwig wants (as most critics put it) to present a Little Women for her generation, digital facelift and all. Early scenes have Jo running through the streets of New York, a kind of re-enactment of Gerwig’s own exuberant run in Francis Ha — itself borrowed from a similar sequence in Leos Carax’s Mauvis Sang — and the film suddenly goes into slow motion, a little visual frisson thrown in I suppose because the filmmaker is feeling her character’s high spirits. Jo’s scenes with Laurie — especially their meet-cute at a dance — feel and sound like standard-issue romcom foreplay in frilly dress, complete with teenage cadences and anachronistic gestures.

Arguably Gerwig’s most audacious time shuffling occurs on Beth’s sickbed — Gerwig goes back and forth between the first time Beth suffers from scarlet fever and the last; our spirits are raised by the earlier sequence (Beth recovers) before Gerwig whacks us across the knees with the latter. Neat feat, but the gimmick short-circuits our feelings towards Beth: she’s gone before you really get to know her, not to mention you get momentarily confused when you spot her younger self still walking around (“Didn’t she die?!”).

Much prefer an earlier adaptation (1994) — Gillian Armstrong by the time she tackled Alcott was a veteran of period dramas, the heroine in her breakout feature My Brilliant Career being a fiercer less sentimental version of Jo. Armstrong counteracts the narrative’s traditional syrup with an austere look: when she means to suggest the March aren’t rich she means it — the girls wear rough cloth in faded colors, often dull green or earth brown, run around in a roomy (the family used to have money) but sparely furnished house. Gerwig walks right into the trap; her March sisters may wear hand-me-downs but they’re brightly colored hand-me-downs; when the girls stage one of their homespun productions (from Jo’s own scripts) it’s like a prep school theatrical designed by a professional art consultant.

And Armstrong is irreducibly visual — when Amy chases after Jo and Laurie on the frozen river (Jo is furious with Amy for burning her manuscript) the camera skims low on ice to suggest the thrill of skating on uncertain surfaces. Jo and Laurie go into a spin, laugh, fall to the ground; they hear a crash and shriek. Jo looks back and — clever Armstrong! — we see nothing, just level ice. Suddenly Amy’s head pops out of the ice; she shrieks again before dropping back. Jo and Laurie race to her, the camera again gliding low, this time suggesting urgency. Armstrong ends the segment with the image (invented, I think, by screenwriter Robin Swicord) of the two sisters reconciled and in bed together, Amy helping Jo reconstruct her lost manuscript.

And Armstrong gets Beth’s passing right. Jo has come home to care for dying Beth, who quietly sums up her housebound self: “I love being home. But I don’t like being left behind.” Weak ironic smile: “Now I am the one going ahead.” A gust blows and Jo goes to the window to shut out the draft, pauses as if to take a break from her deathwatch; when she turns back she realizes Beth is gone.

The death motivates Jo to write a novel about their own life titled Little Women — a detail not in the book but in the sequel, added by screenwriters (in the novel Jo goes on to write short stories with a more personal touch, then decides to focus on opening her school) as far back, I’m guessing, as George Cukor’s 1933 version. It’s a hoary device — Jo pursues her dream and is rewarded with what we assume is going to be a bestseller — but Armstrong stages Beth’s demise so beautifully she almost has me sold. Gerwig with her time shuffling effectively disconnects death and book; we see Beth pass away about 90 minutes in, have another 30 or so minutes of Jo and Laurie and Amy running after and away from each other before we even see the manuscript go to press. In Gerwig’s version Jo appears inspired by Laurie’s rejection to write (if I can’t have him I can at least have fame and fortune) whereas Armstrong’s suggests a tribute, a loving memorial (We lost one of our own, but we still have her in these pages).

Gerwig’s movie has its innovations and wears its modern attitude (satirizing 19th century misogyny along the way) proudly on its sleeve. Armstrong and Swicord gently point up the Marches’ feminism but don’t forget to include a sense (especially in the two previously mentioned sequences) of the pastness of 19th century life: often leisurely, sometimes meandering, mostly dreary. But there are times — often in crisis — when life is suddenly a step ahead of your awareness, happens fast and hard and cruel to you while you’re distracted. Gerwig’s movie is okay but Armstrong’s film remains, in my book, definitive.