'Little Women': It's troubling how relevant Louisa May Alcott's beloved tale still is in 2020
It's a commendable remake of a timeless tale, but Greta Gerwig's take isn't note-perfect
The clothes are less voluminous, the vehicles now electric but, sadly, surprisingly little seems to have changed since Jo March first strode into a publishing office in Louisa May Alcott’s 1868 novel Little Women.
In the modern-day remake of the childhood favourite, which will hit screens in the UAE today, it takes the strong-willed Jo only four minutes to learn she’ll be paid 20 per cent less than a male counterpart. “We pay $25 to $30 for things of this sort, we’ll pay $20 for that,” proffers the white mutton-chopped publisher to the aspiring author.
More than 100 years later, women still roughly make 79 cents (Dh2.9) for every $1 made by a man, according to 2019’s Payscale report.
For those questioning whether we really needed another adaptation of Little Women, which has previously been turned into a film on five occasions, there’s your answer. Until we live in a world where Jo March would make the same as John Grisham, no questions asked, then this tale deserves to be remoulded for future generations.
It’s even more of a sting in light of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences failing to include Greta Gerwig among the all-male finalists for Best Director, when her film picked up another six Oscar nominations – among them a nod for Best Picture.
That isn’t to say this reimagining of the tale, which follows the four March sisters from childhood squabbles through to adulthood angst, is perfect, though it a commendable interpretation.
What this 'Little Women' gets right
The 2020 version, helmed by the Ladybird director, is given a formidable heroine in Saoirse Ronan’s Jo, a strong-willed, witty teacher and writer, hellbent on carving her own path in a man’s world. Ronan, who has been nominated for Best Actress at the Oscars, gives as strong a performance as Winona Ryder in her portrayal of Jo in the 1994 remake, a role for which the Stranger Things star was also Oscar-nominated.
Florence Pugh as Amy, the youngest of the March sisters, is the film’s shining star, however, justifying her inclusion among the Academy Award contenders for Best Supporting Actress. Compared with Kirsten Dunst’s precocious, whining take in 1994, Pugh’s interpretation is far more spirited, mercurial, vivacious and driven.
Rather than being a dreamy little girl who turns into a more reserved, reticent young woman, the Amy of Gerwig’s film is ambitious and confidently assured, a more rounded representation of a child raised by the selfless Marmee (Laura Dern). “Why be ashamed of what you want?” she asks her sisters, after declaring she wants to become the best painter in Paris. Pugh’s Amy also has more conviction in her desire to secure a well-to-do husband, telling the sisters’ next-door neighbour Theodore 'Laurie' Laurence (played assuredly by Timothee Chalamet), she is equally unashamed of wanting to “marry rich”.
“As a woman, there’s no way for me to make a living,” she asserts, with a resigned confidence. “So don’t sit there and tell me that marriage isn’t an economic proposition, because it is. It may not be for you but it most certainly is for me.”
What this 'Little Women' improves
The love story between Laurie and Jo, and then Laurie and Amy, is also far more developed and believable than the 1994 version, where Christian Bale’s Laurie seemingly changes the object of his affection in the blink of an eye. In Gerwig’s film, all three caught in the decade-long love triangle are as emotionally tortured in equal measure, while the developing spark between Amy and Laurie feels plausibly electric. In 1994, the chemistry could barely have powered an LED.
“I have been second to Jo my whole life. I won’t be what you settle for because you can’t have her,” declares Amy, showing a lot more consternation about the frankly complex situation than her earlier counterpart. Jo, in turn, is agonised by her turning down of Laurie, vulnerable in her fear of a life of loneliness but stubborn in her pursuit of liberty.
Similarly, Meg March’s (Emma Watson) romance with Laurie’s tutor, John, is far more believable. Rather than a drab, passion-free arrangement, the eldest sister falls for the stable, supportive educator, played by James Norton, over time, learning to appreciate his reliability and devotion despite his lack of wealth. In all of the film’s romances, the Marches are seen as spirited, ardent and perhaps, arguably, less as possessions, instead all women deserving of being loved in their entirety. It is this balanced portrayal of all four sisters as strong, independent and empathetic women – even the quiet Beth (Eliza Scanlen) has a few bold moments – that forms the backbone of the film. While all interpretations have been a totem of female empowerment, Gerwig’s take is surely the most stirring, particularly in a post-#MeToo climate. To wit, Jo negotiating with a publisher to secure a better deal for her debut novel feels like it could easily be set in a boardroom of 2020, rather than an office of the 1800s.
The other triumph of this Little Women is its bolstered inclusion of secondary characters; Meryl Streep, as expected, brings a more realistic pithiness to the sisters’ Aunt March, playing the wealthy spinster as a wizened, one-line firecracker, who holds a far larger role in the central family. Likewise, the grieving next-door neighbour Mr Laurence, who lost his young daughter years before, has far more screen time, developing a bond with keen pianist Beth that makes one of the film’s most gut-wrenching losses even more poignant.
Everything feels far more multifaceted and less disjointed than the 1994 version. The earlier film may not have felt as unsubstantial originally, but Gerwig’s Little Women certainly holds a light up and finds some holes in the plot.
What this 'Little Women' gets wrong
A platitude of praise aside, the Academy’s lauding of Little Women, with its six nominations, does put the film under a microscope.
Beth might be the sister debilitated by sickness, but Watson is the weakest link in the four central characters. Flitting inconsistently between an American accent and her native British vowel sounds, the Harry Potter actress has far less polish, punch and believability than her on-screen siblings. Chalamet, too, doesn’t lack conviction or talent, but he always feels like a boy playing a man, lacking a certain maturity that could credibly woo not one, but two headstrong women.
It is, in effect, a remake of a remake, using many of the same lines and plot points as the 1994 iteration. While many of the performances are stronger, and elements more truthful to the novel, such as Meg struggling with a hand-to-mouth existence in her married life, can a story so well-traipsed be deserving of a Best Picture win?
Compared with the originality of Taika Waititi’s black comedy Jojo Rabbit, or Sam Mendes’s palm-clenchingly tense 1917, Gerwig’s commendable enrichment of a century-old novel just doesn’t quite cut the mustard.
“Just because my dreams are different to yours doesn’t mean they’re unimportant,” Meg tells Jo right before her wedding. And just because this is a remake doesn’t mean it’s not worthy – but nor will, I suspect, Little Women be going home with a golden gong.
Little Women is in UAE cinemas from Thursday, January 30
Updated: January 29, 2020 05:49 PM