Girls, Girls, Girls
I know one should judge a movie on its own quality, rather than that of its publicity material, but even so: something about the blurb promoting Greta Gerwig's Little Women on the local multiplex website smells awfully whiffy to me. 'Greta Gerwig has crafted a Little Women that draws on both the classic novel and the writings of Louisa May Alcott, and... is both timeless and timely.' Well, that 'timeless and timely' line must be a good one, because I used something similar myself a couple of years ago about an entirely different film, but – 'crafted'? Honestly? I know this is a prestige movie gunning for gongs – it's that time of year – but the implication seems to be that while most of those non-award-contender films were just slapped together out of spit and bubblegum, Gerwig emerged, exhausted, from a shed, having painstakingly 'crafted' her movie single-handed, possibly using a chisel.
Well, you're not responsible for what people write about you, so I should probably move on from reviewing a website advertising the movie and consider the film itself. This is, of course, an adaptation of Louisa M Alcott's classic and much-loved (not to mention much adapted) novel of the same name, a coming of age story set in the USA in the 19th century. It mostly concerns the siblings of one not-especially-well-off family living in Massachusetts: Meg, Amy, Little Jo and Hoss. The novel was originally published in two parts (under different titles in the UK), but Gerwig (scripting as well as directing) has opted to tell the story out of chronological order. Thus it does take a little while for the shape of the tale to become apparent, to say nothing of the difficulties presented when one is trying to recap the plot.
So: the earlier part of the story is set during the American Civil War, with the father of the family absent and everyone else struggling to make ends meet. As noted, the March family are not exactly rolling in dough, and so it is important that at least one daughter makes a good marriage. But who is it to be? Eldest sibling Meg (Emma Watson), who seems to want to be an actress? Second daughter Jo (Saoirse Ronan), whose mind is always fixed upon her writing? What about Amy (Florence Pugh) an artistically gifted but temperamental and sometimes difficult girl? Who will catch the eye of the somewhat feckless but wealthy boy next door (Timothee Chalamet)? Anyway, none of the girls seems to impress the family's stern old matriarch (Meryl Streep)... (I presume Streep is in the role that Lorne Greene used to play in the TV series, though I could be wrong.)
Well, this may be a beloved piece of literature, but it's also one aimed at young American girls, so I must confess to being almost wholly unfamiliar with it. If I wasn't the kind of person who goes to the cinema as a matter of habit, then there's a good chance I probably wouldn't have seen this at all – hang on, though, perhaps that's not entirely true. This is a Greta Gerwig film, after all, and while I am just as happy to see a movie with her as by her, I have been following her career with interest for years now. The same is true of Florence Pugh.
I am happy to report that neither of them have proved my faith to be unfounded. I will admit to feeling a bit restless during the opening stages of the film, especially before the structure of the thing became properly apparent, but in the end it becomes a richly absorbing and impressive film: the staging is excellent, the ensemble playing is also very strong, and I did find the story genuinely touching in places. I get the sense that the film has been structured to retain the bits that people who have read the novel remember – there is some significant breakfast-donating, book-burning and hair-cutting, amongst other things – but Gerwig has structured the script with great intelligence and subtlety, creating resonances between scenes set years apart (presumably in different volumes of the book). The contrast between the warm, welcoming atmosphere of the girls' childhood home and the somewhat bleaker tone of later years is also very well achieved.
With the father of the family absent for much of the film and Chalamet playing a slightly ambiguous character – charming, but also quite callow – this is, obviously, a female-dominated film. I sense that we are in for a lot of these over the next few weeks, for the great beast of capitalism has scented there is money to be made from the MeToo movement, gobbled it up, and is now in the process of selling it back to people in carefully packaged chunks. I really feared that Little Women would likewise end up as a piece of thudding agitprop – its own trailer is big on stressing that it is about how the March sisters are individuals with their own talents and dreams, rather than just wives and mothers in waiting – but once again Gerwig proves she is smarter than this.
There are certainly scenes which feel – how should one put this? – proto-feminist, or even feminist full-stop – the economic importance of marriage to women of this period is made quite clear, for instance. But these are not laboured and do seem to fit quite naturally within the narrative. There is also a moment where Emma Watson's character is permitted to say that she does actually want to get married and have children, and that this is a perfectly valid life goal. Nevertheless, much of the film is about Jo's desire to stay in control of her own life, which basically means remaining single. How, then, to contrive a happy climax to the movie, especially when the book does end with Jo getting spliced? The script manages to negotiate its way around this with some deftness and perhaps even a little impudence.
This is a solid and impressive movie, and very enjoyable. Ronan is customarily good, but she is at least matched by Pugh, who has a rather trickier role to contend with. None of the performances are what you would call weak, though. In the end it is Greta Gerwig's script and direction which really make the movie what it is: charming and pleasant, but not without serious and moving moments, and perhaps even the odd life lesson. Little Women may do very well when the awards season properly gets going: I would not object if it did.