Little Women (US 2019)

The sisters by the sea (from left, Emma Watson as Meg, Florence Pugh as Amy, Saoirse  Ronan as Jo and Eliza Scanlen as Beth)

Little Women, adapted from the novel and directed by Greta Gerwig, is a clever mainstream family entertainment (classified ‘U’ in the UK). It’s a mainstream studio movie for Gerwig who has been mainly associated with American Independent Cinema up to this point. It is very enjoyable to watch but also makes statements in line with current ideas about feminism and in particular the difficulties women have faced in becoming media producers and artists. The film has been a deserved success. The local single screen cinema I attended in a small market town was busy for a Thursday afternoon matinee in its third week of release and I understand that in Hebden Bridge, the cinema advised audiences that they may have to queue for admission and they should arrive early. Releasing at Christmas was a good move – some scenes in the snow and the colourful outfits of the March girls reminded me of another film with Christmas connections, Meet Me in St. Louis (1944). The success is richly deserved and there are many reviews out there so I’ll just make a few observations that might be less widely circulated.

One of several beautifully composed long shots

First up is casting. Everyone is very good in their role but I’m intrigued that none of the March ‘girls’/women (the narrative deals with several years and previous films sometimes used two actors for some of the parts) are actually American. Saoirse Ronan as Jo was, I think born in New York, but grew up in Ireland from the age of 3. Emma Watson as Meg, was born in Paris, but grew up in England. Florence Pugh as Amy is English and Eiza Scanlen as Beth is Australian. In addition James Norton whose character marries Meg is also English (and currently playing Stephen Ward in the BBC serial on Christine Keeler). I don’t have a problem with this but I’m surprised as previous film versions have usually cast American actors. I’m wondering if there was a conscious decision to think of non-American English speakers because they might be more suited to a 19th century East Coast narrative? Of course, many American actors have played British characters, including Emma Stone who was at one point going to play Meg. Ms Stone played an 18th century English woman in The Favourite. But I want to link the casting to two other selections of ‘creative personnel’ for the film, cinematographer Yorick Le Saux and composer Alexandre Desplat, both French, though with experience on American films.

Another beautiful long shot of landscape. I’m showing these because the film’s promo shots focus only on the characters and part of the pleasure of heritage films is settings on a big screen

The ‘literary adaptation’, especially of 19th century novels, is a British ‘thing’ for good or ill. For a period they were known in the UK as ‘heritage films’, a generic category that is equally popular in France. My feeling is that the British and French ‘heritage films’ look and feel different, though I confess I’m not sure exactly what the differences might be. I am inclined to say that Little Women ‘sounds’ British and looks French – but the actions are American? Partly this is because I was riveted by some of the camerawork which at different times made me think of various European painting styles. I was particularly taken by long shots of the Laurence house in Concord and the beach scenes which presumably are meant to be the New England coast but could for me have been Europe. Allied to this, I was easily accepting of the Paris scenes as being shot in Paris when they were actually in the US. Gerwig (or Columbia) also cast French actor-director Louis Garrel as ‘the Professor’.

Laura Dern and Meryl Streep with Florence Pugh

Finally re the casting, I didn’t recognise Chris Cooper at all as Mr Laurence, but I thought him very good. Laura Dern and Meryl Streep are also effective as Marmee and Aunt March. Saoirse Ronan plays the lead and she has great screen presence and charisma, but in some ways Florence Pugh steals the film and I did feel sorry for Emma Watson as Meg, though it is the part rather than the performance that means she makes less impact than Pugh’s Amy.

The major innovation in Greta Gerwig’s adaptation is the restructuring of the narrative, so that flashbacks reveal to us how the March daughters were, back in 1861, and how they are ‘now’ in 1867. Cuts are often made ‘seamlessly’ on similar movements by the same character. This has been much heralded by critics but I found it disconcerting at first. I like to think I am a reasonably skilled reader, but I had to ‘work’ to follow the narrative and reassemble the plot as we went along. Eventually I found myself in tune with the flashbacks but I wonder how many audiences were either confused or just allowed the overall narrative flow to take them along? Perhaps most audiences, especially in North America, know the story so well that they could follow events with no problem at all? The major innovation in the film appears to be to ‘play’ with the scenes detailing how the sisters are influenced or not in terms of the need to marry ‘well’ – i.e. to rich men. I haven’t read the novel but Gerwig’s script seems to shift the discourse around the marriage ‘deal’ to make it a more complex issue about the possibility for women to control their own creativity – and to get properly recompensed for their output. Jo achieves this by writing about herself and her family and getting the full royalties. Amy marries into money but only once she has worked out the economics of life as a female fine artist.

I’m not part of the target audience for this film and I note that there are female commentators who don’t like the film. Hadley Freeman posted a negative personal take in her Guardian column. I found her argument confusing but along with the many comments on her piece she does articulate some of the concerns about Hollywood’s practice of re-making literary adaptations of the same canonical novels. The video essay below by ‘Be Kind Rewind’ is quite long (25 mins) but highly recommended. It takes you through the 1933, 1949 and 1994 film versions and suggests the ways in which the current version is different. It’s both scholarly and engaging – a neat trick. What comes over most of all is that each version is appropriate for its time. I don’t know who is behind this video but she is very good (and she has other similar essays on her YouTube Channel that are well worth viewing).

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