Friday February 21, 2020
Movie Review: Little Women (2019)
I’m a neophyte here—never read the novel nor seen a screen adaptation—so a quick question: Are we supposed to like the March sisters? I found them a bit annoying. Or what I found annoying was the feeling we were supposed to love them and that burst of creative, argumentative energy they brought to a room. They bring life to gloomy, male-only habitats like Mr. Lawrence’s (Chris Cooper), or to the poor, sickly immigrants down the road. At the same time, there’s something closed-off about them. And self-important? I got the feeling outsiders weren’t welcome.
They’re kind of the original latchkey kids, aren’t they, since Dad (Bob Odenkirk) is at war and Mom (Laura Dern) is always volunteering somewhere, so it’s up to Jo (Saoirse Ronan) to keep them together. She does this to a fault. She warns older sister Meg (Emma Watson) against marriage and wills younger sister Beth (Eliza Scanlen) to live. She runs from marriage herself. She’s constantly circling the wagons. In this, she reminds me of Dennis Quaid’s Mike in “Breaking Away,” who warns the other guys against anything (girls, jobs) that would break up the group.
Yes, I know. I’m the only one who will be making this analogy.
All kinds of weather
Were they too different? In a way that didn’t feel real? I have three siblings, and two of us became journalists/editors like my father, but each March sister gets her own creative sandbox:
- Meg: theater (?)
- Jo: writing
- Amy: painting
- Beth: music
And still the bickering. It’s mostly Jo and Amy (Florence Pugh), the most dynamic of the sisters, who, no surprise, get the most screen time. Jo is controlling, Amy doesn’t want to be controlled, etc. She’s also bratty. When she can’t go to the play with Jo and Meg, and their dates Laurie (Timothée Chalamet) and John Brooke (James Norton), she throws a fit, finds Jo’s novel and burns it. Me, leaning over to Vincent: “I would never forgive her.” *
Then I forgave her.
(*Vince and I saw the show last Sunday evening at Pacific Place in downtown Seattle. There were about 30 people there. One other man.)
My wife read “Little Women” when she was young and says writer-director Greta Gerwig made the biggest improvements with Amy. She and Pugh turned her into the movie’s most interesting character. That bit where Pugh is sitting in a chair and playing with her nose? Or her joy at finding Laurie (Timothée Chalamet) in Paris? A great choice by Gerwig to bend the chronology. Since we first see Amy and Laurie together—rather than Jo and Laurie—we root for them as a couple. We root for the joy he obviously brings her.
The girls begin the movie separate. Jo is in New York, struggling to be a writer under the indifferent editorship of Mr. Dashwood (Tracy Letts, playwright), while desiring the approval of her fellow teacher and boarder, the ridiculously handsome Friedrich Bhaer (Louis Garrel). That’s another departure. In the book he’s German, 40s, nothing to look at. Now: French, 20s, wowsie. The magic of Hollywood.
Amy is in Paris, painting, thanks to the largesse and under the watchful, jaundiced eye of Aunt March (Meryl Streep, sublime), who is interested in a rich husband for her. She knows opportunities are few for women. Except that’s not Amy. She wants to be a great artist, and if she can’t be that (and she can’t, because she isn’t), she’d sooner give it up. But what does that leave? She’s got a rich suitor and he proposes. There’s also Laurie, living the dissolute life in Paris after being rejected by Jo, and he’s rich, and he proposes, too. He’s the one she wants but on her terms. She doesn’t want to play sloppy seconds to Jo. She doesn’t want Laurie to want her simply because he can’t have Jo. (Psst: He wants you simply because he can’t have Jo.)
Elsewhere, Meg is married to Brooke, a kind but poor schoolteacher, a big nothing really, while Beth is back home, playing piano and being nice and about to die of complications from scarlet fever. Beth’s illness is the thing that brings the group back together. Or nearly. Amy doesn’t make it in time.
I admit I was bored for a lot of it. I loved the period details; I loved it when we got a sense of how far away the 19th century really was. The inkwell of Mr. Dashwood, for example, or how Gerwig shows us all the details of Jo’s novel, “Little Women,” being produced, with hand-set type, paper cutting, and a cloth-bound cover.
There’s a lovely scene where Beth has been invited over to the house of Mr. Lawrence to play the piano there, and she begins, and the empty house fills with music, and we see him break down on the staircase because it reminds him of his dead daughter and the music sheused to play. Not only is it a beautiful scene—and good to see you again, Mr. Cooper—but it also made me realize that in the 1860s this was the only way you could get music into your home. I knew this already, of course, but it just hit home here. You had to produce it yourself. None of this passive bullshit. One wonders what all of that passivity has done to us as a species.
So, yes, I loved the stuff that stuck me in the 19th century. Less so the scenes that took me out it. At one point, Laurie and Amy are talking love, and how much control we have over it, and Amy suddenly starts talking not love but marriage:
As a woman, I have no way to make money, not enough to earn a living and support my family. Even if I had my own money, which I don‘t, it would belong to my husband the minute we were married. If we had children they would belong to him not me. They would be his property. So don’t sit there and tell me that marriage isn't an economic proposition, because it is. It may not be for you but it most certainly is for me.
Immediately I thought: That sounds like something Gerwig added to tell modern audiences how few rights women had back then.
Yep. Gerwig added it at Meryl Streep’s suggestion to give modern audiences “the opportunity to understand the true powerlessness of women in that period.” I get it, sure, but was there no other way? Took me right out of the story. I was no longer watching 19th-century Amy as written by Louisa May Alcott but 21st-century Florence Pugh as written by Greta Gerwig. It clunked. It flashed: MESSAGE.
Let me add this. One of the toughest things to show on screen is artistic creativity, since in reality it’s a slog. Writing’s the worst. At least painting is visual (see: “New York Stories”), while music can soar (see: “Amadeus”). But watching someone writing is watching someone doing nothing. Yet the scenes where Jo begins the book that becomes “Little Women,” are marvels—from setting up the candles and her notebook just so, to the flurry of work, and the exhaustion, and the flurry of work again, and laying all the papers out on the attic floor—to dry, re-read, edit. I won’t ever forget those papers lined up in neat rows. Gerwig made writing look like something gorgeous in the doing.