LITTLE WOMEN Review - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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Tony catches up with the Marches.

Little Women, the novel published in two parts by Louisa May Alcott, is now over 150 years old. That means not only has it been thrilling and delighting readers and audiences for over 150 in various media, but it’s become one of those stories. One of those stories like the works of Shakespeare and Dickens which will never die but which will speak freshly to every new generation with a new take on its fundamental lessons, its strong characters and its ongoing sense of emotional rollercoaster.

Greta Gerwig’s new interpretation of the story of the four Massachusetts March sisters is richly textured, and pays a lot of mind to the business of world-building, so above everything else, it feels like you’re invited into a full and functional world as the movie opens. The actual business of the movie tends to focus on the March girls in two time periods, firstly their young, hopeful selves when Jo (Saorise Ronan) aims to be a writer, Amy (Florence Pugh) an artist, Meg (Emma Watson) a schoolteacher, and Beth (Eliza Scanlen) at home with their mother Marmee (Laura Dern), doing chores and good works as Marmee’s selfless nature demands, frequently to the detriment of her own family of little women, and then, a practical handful of heartbeats later, after love and life have dealt with the March girls a little. Meg marries for love and finds, in addition, poverty and hardship for the most part exceeding that she faced at home. Jo finds at least some success with her writing, via a couple of unhelpful critiques. Amy unexpectedly marries a family friend, and Beth is…elsewhere.

Like a later, American version of Pride And Prejudice, the chemistry between the sisters is crucial to driving the viewer’s involvement along, and while the sisters themselves are archetypes – it’s been said that each of the March sisters is a ‘part’ of the ‘All-American girl’ – there’s a danger in the latest version that they only really get a chance to make sense and make their personalities felt in relative isolation; it’s trite to say that when they’re all together, there’s rather more gabble than gain, but certainly when the March girls are united, there’s a degree of rapid overchatter than dissolves mostly into noise. But that reflects the nature of teenage sisters everywhere in any age. In their individual characters and aspirations, there’s more to enjoy and delve into, given the ups and downs to which their lives are subject.

But what is there here to engage a new audience in the struggles of these nineteenth-century sisters? Well, that richness of world, for one thing – we absolutely believe these are real people in real relationships, and that the problems they face are things which genuinely take their lives on different pathways. In terms of characterisation, you might struggle to differentiate at least a couple of the sisters in the ‘early years’ sections, and you might also struggle to care, but as the movie progresses, you’ll begin to identify the particular natures of each of the sisters, and even to choose the ones with whom you most want to spend most time. Each of them also, more pertinently in terms of the modern audience, has a perspective on the experience of girlhood, the trials of becoming a woman in a society which proscribes the limits of women’s capabilities, and the determined expectation that their path in life will be dependent on a man. Meg, the relative intellectual of the family, thinks things through, grabs one night of dazzling fun and then prepares herself for a life of being crushingly sensible, but falls in love with a moneyless man. Her story never for a moment minimises the hardship that entails, and in fact there are scenes where she succumbs to the temptation to buy things neither she nor her husband can afford, because the soul-crushing nature of poverty surrounded by rich and carefree friends proves too much, but she repents of her folly in relatively quick time and rediscovers her appreciation for the life she was able to choose. Florence Pugh’s Amy delivers quite a blistering speech on the transactional nature of marriage, explaining why she intends to marry a rich man, so that at least the privations of a married life might have the balm of wealth and the comfort it provides. Jo herself refuses the offer of marriage from the man she probably loves, only to come around to the idea when that man has already married one of her sisters. And in this version, there’s a certain cynicism in Jo the writer, when delivering the tale to her publishers (the line between Jo and Alcott being deliberately even more blurred than is usual in this telling), being told decisively to marry her heroine (herself) off to an eligible gentleman who’s not afraid to tell her the truth even about her own writing. She agrees to do so, at least in the story she tells the world, in exchange for an extra cut of the profits from the book’s sales – so at the end, Jo becomes a somewhat unreliable narrator, and we’re never entirely sure if the happy ending that exists bears any resemblance to the ‘reality’ of her life, or is merely tacked on to appease her eager audience of young girls.

Above all, this version of Little Women speaks to women’s ability to self-determine, to whatever degree they feel strong enough to do so. Meg, who Jo hopes will run away with her and become a famous actress, turns her back on that idea in favour of marriage, vindicating the choice of love and marriage over career with the simple, strong statement that ‘Just because my desires are not the same as yours, that does not make them meaningless.’ Jo, likewise, is determined throughout the story to have no husband, to live an old maid and a happy, self-determining one at that. That rather makes the man-dependent happy ever after ending she tacks onto the book feel false, but with a generosity of spirit we can see it as a reflection of all those Austen and Bronte books when, like a thunderbolt, the realisation of a denied love is made plain to the heroine and she embraces it wholeheartedly. Amy, who determines early to marry for wealth, eventually marries an eligible man, but she does so in such a whirlwind way that we’re encouraged to think that she too has abandoned her harsher criteria – despite of course having them met. And at the end, when Jo inherits a large house from a matron aunt of strong opinion (played with peerless American archness by Meryl Streep), there is talk of turning it into a school for ‘boys and girls both’ – a notable updating of the original, which talks only of a school for boys. The importance of education and the level to which it, more perhaps than anything but love in this narrative, can change the lives of girls and women becomes a thread through the movie, from Meg’s schoolteaching, Amy’s schooling, Beth’s shyness which prevents her from joining her sister in the scholastic experience, and ultimately to this plan to found a school which will allow other ‘little women’ to avail themselves of learning, of a breadth of knowledge and a practical application of that knowledge. That that remains an angle on the story that’s of significant value in 2020 is utterly depressing. That there are filmmakers prepared to push that element forward in a mainstream, Oscar-nominated movie based on a book from 150 years ago though is encouraging, and a strong statement of an alternative to love or chattelhood as a way of turning innocent girls into relatively independent little women, both then and more especially now.

Overall, buying into the action and the lasting power of Little Women in its latest incarnation depends on the strength of the characterisation of the March girls. Laura Dern as Marmee has this down in spades, and while some of the sisters shine more brightly than others – Jo and Amy in particular - that’s more down to the relatively active fire in their personalities than any weakness on the part of the other actresses. Meg absolutely gets her moments and finds what’s actually important to her, and Beth’s sub-plot turns her from a relatively quiet, mostly kind young girl into a decaff semi-saint by virtue of its arc, allowing her to be remembered as ‘the best of us.’

Little Women has been wowing readers and audiences for 150 years. On the evidence of Gerwig’s new, strongly engaging and self-determined version, that’s not about to stop any time soon.

Tony lives in a cave of wall-to-wall DVDs and Blu-Rays somewhere fairly nondescript in Wales, and never goes out to meet the "Real People". Who, Torchwood, Sherlock, Blake, Treks, Star Wars, obscure stuff from the 70s and 80s and comedy from the dawn of time mean he never has to. By day, he runs an editing house, largely as an excuse not to have to work for a living. He's currently writing a Book. With Pages and everything. Follow his progress at

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