With this miserable year coming to a close, I figured that a quintessential December movie is the need of the hour. However, instead of suggesting an on-the-nose cheesy Christmas film, I’ve decided to go for a film which, in my opinion, reinvigorates the mind and soul while also being aptly themed for Christmas. Enjoy!
When I first heard about the latest take on “Little Women”, my joy knew no bounds. I was even more excited to hear that Greta Gerwig would be directing as well as writing the adapted screenplay.
Having watched her solo directorial-cum-screenwriting debut “Lady Bird” (an absolute must-watch) before, it’s apparent as to why Gerwig was the right fit for this project. Her knack for exploring and showcasing interpersonal relationships in their truest sense, is par excellence. And a film like “Little Women” demands exactly that. Add to this, her stellar casting choices, and you’ve got a solid, meaty project.
Initially “Little Women” was due to release globally on Christmas Day 2019, which in my opinion was perfect timing. If you’ve read the book, then you know why. So imagine my utter dismay on finding out that it would release in February in India. Come February, with the bad show timing schedules and yours truly was left fuming. Thankfully streaming came to my rescue unexpectedly soon and now I’m a happy camper.
Well, enough of my rambling for now. Let’s get back to the film.
“Little Women” commences with an adult Jo March working in New York City, reminiscing her past spent in 19th century Massachusetts. Gerwig decides to shake things up (quite literally) by focusing on perspective and dismantling the chronology of events in Louisa May Alcott’s beloved novel that we’ve all come to know and love. There are constant shifts between the past memories and the present events at hand.
You’d think that such a ruse would end up confusing the viewers. However due to its deft handling, with the right cuts and edits, it ends up being a much-welcomed change. In fact it makes the plot, dare I say, more alluring. The confusion is further cleared by the use of subtle tones. The past is presented in warm, golden hues while the present is shown with relatively darker, cool tones. The purpose of this tonal scheme is not lost on me, since it’s a wonderful way of depicting the character’s (in most cases, Jo) frame of mind. It also lends itself wonderfully to the plot in terms of foreshadowing, whilst simultaneously involving and elevating the stunning cinematography, headed by Yorick Le Saux.
The film does a thorough job of not only introducing the characters but also enhancing them seamlessly. The March sisters may share a surname and home, but they are poles apart in terms of personality and represent a smorgasbord of aspirations. We’ve already met headstrong, literary Jo (Saoirse Ronan). Then there’s the eldest March sister: beautiful, traditional Meg (Emma Watson). Further down the line, we meet the gentle, musical Beth (Eliza Scanlen) and finally, the baby of the family: artistic, demanding Amy (Florence Pugh). The present March family is rounded off with the selfless yet quietly strained matriarch Marmie (Laura Dern).
In due course, we also meet the supporting characters and love interests. Some notable ones being Aunt March (Meryl Streep), Theodore Lawrence a.k.a. Laurie (Timothée Chalamet), Friedrich Bhaer (Louis Garrel), John Brooke (James Norton), and Mr. Dashwood (Tracy Letts).
Although the story is set in the backdrop of the American Civil War, the main focus is on the coming-of-age aspect of the March sisters. The film perfectly captures siblinghood and childhood with all its warmth and struggles. It’s the attention to the tiniest of details, such as the orchestration and execution of the sisters’ exuberant overlapping chatter, akin to reality, which really stuck with me. Another wonderful feature is the downright refusal of restraint in scenes depicting childhood squabbles which allows the ferocity to organically mature into palpable family tensions by the time the sisters reach adulthood.
The plot does not shy away from the expectations and repressions that the 19th century society exerted on women. Rather, it underscores them since several of these issues, namely: gender dynamics & discrimination, lack of creative liberty, societal and class distinction and more, persist even today. The vulnerabilities and struggles which stem from the aforementioned issues are also addressed through two standout monologues. The first monologue is by Jo who laments about loneliness being the cost of her high ambitions. The second one is surprisingly by Amy, who easily takes Laurie down a peg, by presenting the harsh truth of the economic proposition of marriage and its consequences, as opposed to its romanticism. The issue of marriage has further been referenced in a rather amusing banter between Aunt March and Jo, where the former promptly reminds the latter that her wealth grants her spinsterhood.
Despite addressing such serious issues, the film has some terrific positive spins and takes. The familial affection, friendship, optimism and poignancy has not been skimped out on. Be it the surprise Christmas dinner, Beth’s unexpected gift or Laurie and Jo’s first meeting and ensuing shenanigans. None of the March sisters’ differing aspirations have been judged with a cynical eye, especially the rather traditional ones involving Beth and Meg. However, the most positive take of them all is that the fruition of one’s aspirations and goals has been considered as the happy ending, as opposed to the romantic couplings which very rightly get the deus ex machina treatment, as Alcott had originally wanted.
The ensemble cast as a whole is excellent and overall the performances definitely match up to what the film and plot demand. A fun fact to note is that none of the actresses playing the March sisters are American. The standout performances for me are Saoirse Ronan, who accurately represents Jo’s ambitious nature as well as its clash with her vulnerabilities, and Florence Pugh, who goes above and beyond with a complex, fleshy take on Amy, that easily throws away previously held notions of the youngest sister simply being a spoilt brat. Timothée Chalamet as Laurie, has excellent chemistry with all the sisters. Meryl Streep and Laura Dern, as always, shine in their respective roles in their limited screen time. A special mention goes to Eliza Scanlen as Beth, who is absolutely expressive even in the character’s most quiet moments, proving her wide range. This is even more remarkable given that she has previously played sociopaths all too well on-screen. And how can I forget Tracy Letts‘ memorable turn as Mr. Dashwood, a book publisher whose conversations with an adult Jo are highly entertaining. Now for the flip side. I had high expectations of Emma Watson since she has nailed far tougher American accents in films before (see The Bling Ring and The Perks of Being a Wallflower). However, she surprisingly stumbles, and its even more apparent in light of the superior performances by her fellow non-American peers (FYI: Ronan is Irish, Pugh is British, and Scanlen is Australian). In terms of casting, I wish that an appropriately aged actress were cast to play baby Amy. As a viewer, it’s a little disconcerting to see (a very much adult) Pugh play a fellow classmate of actual 10 year old kids. They could have taken cues from the 1994 version of “Little Women“, which had an excellent (and then appropriately aged) Kirsten Dunst play baby Amy. It just makes the transition to adulthood for Amy, all the more impactful. As much as I like the little things that Gerwig added to the film, she sometimes goes for the overkill, a prime example being the letter fiasco concerning Jo and Laurie. Such scenes added nothing but dead weight to the film. That being said, the positives of the film easily outweigh the negatives.
“Little Women” provides as much heart as it does substance, which makes it the perfect go-to film in December. Staunch Alcott purists will definitely have something positive to take away from the film as well. You all can rest well-assured knowing that Greta Gerwig has done her homework. So by all means, go ahead and immerse yourself in the lives of these bright, young women set in beautiful Massachusetts. It’s best enjoyed on a cozy night in, with a warm cup of hot chocolate and/or the ever-indulgent chocolate chip cookie.
Meanwhile, Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays! I’ll see you in the New Year.
Copyright © 2020 by Shamika Lal, all rights reserved.