“Little Women”

 

            This is now the 8th movie version of Louisa May Alcott's 1860's novel.  Greta Gerwig wrote the screenplay (adapted from the novel) and directed, so it definitely bears her stamp.  Though she's great at showing us the closeness of the March family, and has thankfully worked to concentrate on the main characters and avoid many of the secondary ones, still, she prefers to switch the narrative back and forth in time, which is unnecessarily confusing.

            The main character is Jo (Saoirse Ronan), a headstrong young woman who chafes at the constraints placed upon women in mid-19th century America.  What's not mentioned is that old-fashioned chivalry has two sides.  The men are off fighting the Civil War, and the women are not expected to participate.  In fact, Jo's father, a minister, is serving as a chaplain.  That means Jo's mother, Marmee (Laura Dern) must be the head of the household now, and cope with the loss of what little income her husband made to support the family.  She tutors on the side.  The second daughter, Meg (Emily Watson), doesn't share her older sister's fierce sense of independence.  In fact, she wants to settle down in the traditional way, be married, and raise a family of her own.  The third daughter, Beth (Eliza Scanlen) is the musician, who is quite accomplished at the piano, but contracts scarlet fever.  The fourth daughter, Amy (Florence Pugh) possesses a decent skill as a painter, but what she really wants to do is marry rich and live a life of leisure, like her Great-Aunt (Meryl Streep, who hasn't quite attained the caustic wit and delivery of dowager Maggie Smith, but she's getting there).

            The sisters playfully engage in homemade theater, and even invite the rich boy next door, “Laurie” Laurence (Timothee Chalamet), who enjoys the company of all the sisters much more than his dry Latin lessons which his grandfather  (Chris Cooper) insists on.  Marmee insists they share their Thanksgiving meal with the poor family down the way.  She happily reads aloud to the whole family the letters from her husband (Bob Odenkirk), until she finds out he's wounded and recuperating in a Washington, D.C. Hospital.  She feels that she must go attend to him, which leaves the sisters to look out for one another.

            Jo's interest in writing has led her to submit some of her work to a publisher, Mr. Dashwood (Tracy Letts), who at first is lukewarm about the material, until his own daughters tell him they can't wait to read the next excerpt.  When “Little Women” was published, it was an instant success, even though it was “only” a family drama.  Ms. Alcott's character development was obviously fascinating, and she certainly knew her subject, because it was all semi-autobiographical.  Jo is even shown debating with Mr. Dashwood, at the end, about whether the character based on her is ever going to find any romance.  Mr. Dashwood insists that's what the public wants.  And maybe he's right.  But we still enjoy the innate feistiness of the young writer who vowed to remain single, which she interpreted as self-reliant: “I want to paddle my own canoe.”

            Though there's a Civil War going on at the time, this is about the home front, and especially one particular home.  It's small-scoped enough for us to feel comfortable with the main characters, as we, too, become interested in what happens to them.  150 years later, Louisa May Alcott is still working her literary magic.

 

Dr. Ronald P. Salfen, DFW Film Critics Association