GRETA GERWIG’s Little Women (Cert. PG), now available digitally as well as on Blu-ray and DVD, is at least the seventh film adaptation of the novel (Features, 14 February), besides innumerable television series. Like Morecambe and Wise, Gerwig plays all the right notes, but not necessarily in the right order. Louisa May Alcott’s linear narrative becomes a series of (sometimes disjointed) flashbacks. The intention, presumably, was to juxtapose four daughters’ childhood years with what each of them becomes. The difficulty lies in taking seriously mature adult actresses appearing as their considerably younger selves.
It is the time of the American Civil War. The March family live in genteel poverty with Marmee (Laura Dern) whilst her husband serves in the Unionist army. No mention is made, based though he is on Alcott’s own father, of being a Transcendentalist Unitarian chaplain. It would have explained the household’s overriding belief in the goodness of others, respecting difference and allowing each person to be their true selves untrammelled by inappropriate role-modelling — in short, values that inform the film.
Jo (Saoirse Ronan), Alcott’s alter ego, is a writer determined to remain single, striving for financial security. Amy (Florence Pugh) graduates from spoilt brat to mature woman whose lips deliver a set speech about the lack of female property rights. She perceives marriage as “an economic proposition”. Marmee, though gentle and kind, expresses (as in the book) anger, adding (not, I think, Alcott’s words) a contemporary justification, “I’ve spent my whole life ashamed of my country.”
In contrast to modern society’s attitude, though, Eliza Scanlen’s Beth asserts Victorian Christianity’s positive approach to dying well. Romance is represented chiefly through Meg (Emma Watson) who prefers conjugal impecuniousness with a man she loves to an embarrassment of riches with someone she doesn’t. When Jo admonishes her for not pursuing a stage career, she replies: “Just because my dreams are different from yours doesn’t mean they’re unimportant.” That women can be strong in a variety of ways is already there in Alcott’s writings. Gerwig just gives them a 21st-century tweak.
When father returns, he makes little impression on us, unlike his matriarchal affluent sister (Meryl Streep taking a leaf out of Maggie Smith’s Downton book) and, indeed, Alcott’s father with his radical religious views. In a post-modern flourish, Gerwig provides alternative conclusions. A clichéd lover’s dash resulting in betrothal is set alongside negotiations over Jo-Louisa’s book. She and the publisher speak straight to camera, breaking the fourth wall. He insists on one of four typical Victorian novel endings for the heroine: a legacy, marriage, emigration, or death. She reluctantly accedes, but only after exacting a blow for women’s liberty.
This is a film about becoming the best version of ourselves. As such, it accords with Emerson, Alcott’s fellow Transcendentalist, who commented “Belief consists in accepting the affirmations of the soul.” Yes, but that quest for perfection, running through Christian spirituality, also recognises that the guiding Spirit works through our social networks. Little Women 2019 is a touch too individualistic in that regard. Me rather than us.