A period drama film, Little Women is the latest adaptation of the 1868 novel by Louisa May Alcott. Directed by Greta Gerwig, the coming-of-age film follows the lives of the four March sisters played by a stellar cast: loving Meg (Emma Watson), hot-tempered Jo (Saoirse Ronan), sweet Beth (Eliza Scanlen) and sheltered Amy (Florence Pugh). Chronicling their lives, Little Women illustrates the sisters’ joy and struggles in two intertwining timelines.
Set in 1868, the protagonist, free-spirited Jo is working in New York City as a tutor. An avid writer and aspiring novelist, Jo visits the unreceptive Mr Dashwood (Tracy Letts) who owns a publishing house. Selling her work under an alias, Jo struggles with Mr Dashwood’s criticism on how “Morals don’t sell nowadays”. However, Jo manages to publish her work albeit largely truncated according to the public’s appetite. Her desire to make a living from her literary works puts her at odds from the stories she truly wishes to write.
The film pans between the past and the present, and a flashback shows the fateful encounter between Jo and neighbour Laurie (Timothée Chalamet). Dressed in an elegant gown and a handsome suit respectively, Jo and Laurie became fast friends, the two goofing around inappropriately in a high society setting while Meg revelled in the festivities. Their friendship deepened, with Laurie being absolutely charmed by Jo and her family. Despite their seemingly compatible personalities, Laurie’s marriage proposal was turned down by Jo.
In New York, Jo’s work is lambasted by acquaintance Professor Bhaer (Louis Garrel) who is sincere in his words, believing that Jo should not write to accommodate the scandalous tastes of the public. Their blooming friendship is immediately nipped in the bud by Jo’s temper getting the better of her. Returning home to Concord, Massachusetts for her ailing sister, viewers are now introduced to Beth who suffers from scarlet fever. Quiet Beth, she frequently seeks solace in the piano, revealing a reserved character that deeply cares for the people around her.
“Why does she (Amy) get away from everything?”
Jo is furious when Amy, the youngest, is still travelling in Europe with their Aunt (Meryl Streep) in blissful ignorance while the two older sisters tend to Beth. Carrying herself like a proper lady, Amy is seen to be vain and self-centered at times. In contrast, Meg is shown to be living rather frugally, having married a penniless tutor out of love. Their Aunt March has pointed out many times, the only way to be unmarried is to be rich and to marry poor is a failure in life. Little Women has made such bold statements, reflecting the status quo of the high expectations society has imposed on women.
Returning to the halcyon days when the four sisters still lived together, their days were filled with joy. Enacting plays from Jo’s stories, they would don elaborate costumes and perform for the neighbouring children. Laurie, who was easily accepted into the group, was their unanimous sibling back in a simpler time. It was the age when the sisters had each other, and Laurie.
In the past, Beth had recovered once from the disease. Jo’s memories are melancholic, remembering how they had celebrated Beth’s recovery in conjunction with their father’s return from war. The crowded house of March was filled with laughter and joy then. In stark contrast, the present is silent and painful as Beth’s health deteriorates and she eventually passes away. Gerwig’s use of the flitting past and present narratives is excellent in accentuating the inevitable changes of life. From an overjoyed Jo celebrating Beth’s recovery with the others to a miserable Jo weeping silently for the loss by herself.
In the present, Amy is shown to be arguing with Laurie about how marriage is an economic proposition. As Jo has stated, “Marriage is not romance but mercenary”, the repeated theme highlights the distinct gender inequality and women’s lack of rights. Amy further informs Laurie, feeling dispirited about how her money, her children, and everything that she owns will eventually be her husband’s property. Reminiscing of Aunt March’s constant reminder of “Save your family by marrying well”, it is emphasized by Amy’s frustration at the shackles a woman wears. The coddled sister is forced to grow up following the reality of society.
Later, a sincere Professor Bhaer appears at the Marches’ doorstep to see Jo for the last time before his leave for California. In a twist that defies gender expectations, Jo stops Professor Bhaer, urging him to stay for her.
The film then ends on a happy note, Meg and her husband promising to work hard for the family, Laurie and Amy finding love in each other, and Jo opens a school with her perfect match, Professor Bhaer. The sisters’ bonds are shown to be stronger than before, fulfilling a wish of their late sister, Beth. The final scene closes with Jo’s successful negotiation with Mr Dashwood, retaining her copyrights and publishing her book based on their lives, Little Women.
Little Women speaks volumes of the expectations placed on women while serving as an inspiration for all looking to transcend those weights. The scene whereby Jo and Amy argue about publishing Jo’s Little Women has struck a chord in me. “Writing confers importance,” Jo seems apprehensive about publishing a work based on their ordinary lives while the encouraging Amy retorts, “Writing about something makes it more important.” After all, the most beautiful thing in life is usually found in the mundane.
“Women, they have minds and they have souls, as well as just hearts. And they have ambitions and talent as well as just beauty. I am sick of people saying that love is all a woman is fit for.” In particular, I have loved this line as spoken truly by Jo.
Little Women is a beautiful film, succinctly sharing the emotional yet inspiring narratives of four very different women struggling to make their voices heard.