Women's Day

Despite modern touches, Little Women is a richly old-fashioned movie

[It’s Oscar season and I’m doing the Oscar nominee thing. Links here for my reviews of Marriage StoryThe IrishmanOnce Upon a Time… in HollywoodParasite, Joker, and Jojo Rabbit; more to come shortly.]

I get the feeling people are getting talked out of Little Women, and not just for the advertised sexist reasons. I think there are some — I was going to say “purists” but I don't really know what to call them — who think a film of Louisa May Alcott's novel ought to be a sedate Masterpiece Theater thing. Even I was knocked off course at first: I was worried going in that I’d get a weird Greta Gerwig mumblecore Little Women. Before properly viewing the movie I peeked in at a multiplex on the big Jo/Aunt March scene and thought Saoirse Ronan looked too contemporary, talking to her formidable aunt and potential benefactress (played extra-formidably by Meryl Streep) with an insolence that seemed out of keeping with their time and place. When I heard Gerwig had jumbled the timeline, too, it made me apprehensive.

Well, shows what I know. In context not only that scene but nearly all the others feel absolutely true and right, and the time-shifting is not only acceptable but actually heightens the emotions of the story — which are considerable; I’m a hard-headed old crank and I had several nice cries throughout.

The March girls are in varying degrees fresher than some of us may be expecting from young women out of 19th Century books — not only Jo, but the other sisters are spunky and self-possessed in a modern way. This makes sense because 1.) the Marchs, like the Alcotts by whom they’re inspired, are good old Yankee dissenters and visionaries, used to bucking convention; also they’re only genteely poor, with rich relatives and friends, and that keeps them from the desperation that might have made them truckle more; 2.) being poor, they don’t get out in society a lot, which makes them intensely oriented to their family; when Meg goes to a dance, we see her awareness of her social disadvantages rather curdles her (“let me be Daisy a little while”), and who knows what it would do to the girls if they experienced more of it; 3.) this is 2020, and our idea of the past changes like everything else; and especially 4.) the Marches have strong values — they live in love, believing in and practicing it in charity to the more-unfortunate as well as in their dealings with one another, and this suffuses and softens everything around them and, it is suggested, attracts the rich Laurences to them. So if Jo is frank with Aunt March, it may be that both the girl and the aunt know each other too well to expect her to be anything else.

The story moves back and forth between early March adventures — Jo’s friendship with Laurie, Beth’s sickness and death — and later ones, with Meg’s and Amy’s marriages and Jo’s literary activities in New York. This really centers Jo. In fact, being so literary a device it beefs up our awareness of Jo as a writer and thus the nexus of everything we’re seeing. Mixing scenes of what looks like Jo’s and Laurie’s budding romance, for example, with Laurie’s post-dumping sorrows and his pivot to Amy makes the early Jo-Laurie relationship clearer — not a spoiled romance, but a spirited but confused young man misinterpreting signals from his female friend. We thus don’t waste much time wondering how that relationship will develop, but instead wonder how Jo, our heroine, will navigate it. (What happens to her is much more important that what happens to them.)

And the time-bending around Beth’s sickness and death allows us not only to feel how important she and her death are to Jo, but (in a brilliant coup de cinema) how inadequate her gifts are for handling the pain of Beth’s demise. I’m not crazy about the ending, where the authorial voice asserts a little strenuously (no, romantic love a construct and a compromise? However would we have figured that out if you hadn't hit us over the head with it!) but by then I was too lit up by the Marchs' circle of love to mind.

This is, despite the modern touches, a very old-fashioned movie, full of lush sensibility and the craft pleasure of the Hollywood historical picture. This is especially evident in Alexandre Desplat’s music; it’s melodic, allusive to the period, and underlines emotions and themes as one would expect from a Korngold or Alfred Newman score. It works better with this movie than Randy Newman’s frankly retro scoring worked with Marriage Story, and seems a world away from the anxiety-churning devices of Hildur Guðnadóttir on Joker and Thomas Newman on 1917. At first I was annoyed by Yorick Le Saux's darkened photography — I know it’s the 19th Century, but come on! — but one’s eyes adjust, and I think that he and Gerwig knew this approach would pay off by preventing the period setting from stealing focus from the characters. (Plus, when Laurie leaves Jo alone on a hillside overlook, the dazzling autumn foliage in which she’s embedded makes a nice correlative to the character’s condition — surrounded by riches, but isolated.)

The actors are terrific; Saoirse Ronan shows us Jo growing up before our eyes, and how an inspired, solitary person can still suffer from heartbreak and loneliness. Eliza Scanlen’s Beth goes from a good playmate to a brave acquaintance of doom; Emma Watson’s Meg struggles with her mistakes nobly and lets us see that her struggle is not entirely successful. And Florence Pugh has the guts to make Amy willful and selfish and even unlikable — and the brilliance to make her aware of these traits, which makes her empathetic and worth caring about. Her terror at coming back to Jo as Laurie’s wife is wonderful, and the moment she confesses her love to Laurie is sublime, one of those cover-off-the-ball acting home runs that probably won her the Oscar nomination. And if Laura Dern wins that award for Marriage Story, I think her enlightened and loving Marmee will be the yang that pushes her yin over the top.