By Andrea Thompson
One could argue that all works are at least somewhat semi-autobiographical, but Louisa May Alcott’s “Little Women” is more directly associated with its creator than most. Alcott drew on much of her experiences with her own family to create a book that has gone on to be quite beloved to generations of girls. Few works take their concerns, daily lives, and yes, ambitions, so seriously, and with such passion.
Alcott herself led a rich, fascinating life, one which she wasn’t always allowed to mine for more complexity, especially with her more famous writing, a fact which few adaptations of “Little Women” seem to acknowledge. But may the cinematic gods forever bless writer-director Greta Gerwig, who grasps this dichotomy from the first, kicking off 2019’s with a quote from Alcott herself: “I’ve had lots of troubles, so I write jolly tales.”
It makes sense that we begin with the March sister who is Alcott’s surrogate, Jo March (Saoirse Ronan), but near her end, not her beginning. As if we needed an excuse to love this character more, she kicks things off by confidently striding into a roomful of men to see if her writing could amount to money. Yet it’s not the story we know and love that she’s peddling, merely one that will allow her to earn her living. Her other sisters are also all struggling in their own way, what with her married older sister Meg (Emma Watson) struggling to reconcile her taste for finery with her more straitened circumstances, Amy (Florence Pugh) in Europe taking painting lessons and considering marriage with a wealthy, eligible bachelor, and sickly Beth (Eliza Scanlen) the only sibling remaining at home.
Gerwig doesn’t so much flash back to their earlier lives as juxtapose the childhood and adulthood of the four March sisters, and just how much their past informs their future. Before Jo and her beloved Laurie (Timothée Chalamet) share any screen time, we’re already informed she’s rejected Laurie’s proposal. So along with the most obvious, but non-romantic connection Jo and Laurie have always shared, the affection that also existed between Laurie and Amy is allowed to grow and mature. But as always, Jo and Laurie still pretty much steal the spotlight as the lifelong friends who are always meant to remain just that, sharing an easy chemistry that practically bursts from the screen in every scene.
Given that, it’s always been difficult for many of Alcott’s fans to not only reconcile themselves to Jo’s decision to refuse Laurie, but get invested in his subsequent courtship of Amy. It’s only natural, since the more conventional Amy, both in terms of femininity and beauty, is the antithesis of the awkward, tomboyishly lovable Jo, whom readers were far more likely to identify with. But this time Amy not only gets her due, but a romance worth our time and investment, as well as a vibrant inner life. Each sister does, and we empathize all the more when the harsh realities of adulthood – not to mention womanhood – hit, and the gap between their desires and their opportunities becomes painfully wide. It’s another secret this adaptation seems privy to, that Alcott didn’t just reassure young women that their ambitions were acceptable, but their loneliness too, although it leans a bit too hard on Jo’s regrets at a crucial moment.
Costume designer Jacqueline Durran, who has worked her magic on films as varied as “Atonement,” “Another Year,” “Anna Karenina,” and “Macbeth,” also understands how to make her cast stand out, as individuals and as a unit. It isn’t just Marches, but also the more wealthy Laurie, who share a certain naturalistic sensibility which reflects their idealism and activism, which is in stark contrast to their more worldly friends, who are all attired in the kind of traditionally breathtaking period clothing we associate with costume dramas.
Not that the book isn’t limited in itself by providing the kind of escapist entertainment which was most likely a far cry from Alcott’s own life as a female writer. The ending of “Little Women” certainly achieves a kind of balancing act of its own as it gives us the romantic, idyllic ending the author felt pressured to create, along with a new kind of wish fulfillment, which gives Jo negotiating power in not only publishing her book, but owning her copyright. Is the utopia at the closing, which Jo has filled with children, family, and friends, a reality, or yet another fantasy? It’s unclear, but the sight of Jo holding the book, which is truly her book, at the end is not.