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Girls allowed
The seventh screen incarnation of LITTLE WOMEN, a seminal novel written in 1868, is an absolute delight. Director and indie favourite Greta Gerwig directs with absolute trust in her actors' capabilities. Camus is won over by the sincere heart at the film's core…
 
  "I re-read the book as an adult, and I was bowled over by how modern it was, how much it was about women, ambition, art and money. There were lines that could have been written yesterday. It was a chance to address things that were so personal, and also to do something radical with it."
  Director Greta Gerwig*

 

I cannot tell you how much pleasure there is to watch a movie in 2020 (yes, we are there already) with no weary, casual expectation of male to female sexual threat. When an older man sits on the bottom of a staircase listening to piano music played by a teenage neighbour that reminds him of his deceased daughter, you don't automatically think of Harvey Weinstein. Well, by writing that I just negated my own point but this decency is such a relief. It's an exquisitely timed cut too, bravo editor Nick Houy. Leave the shot too long and dark thoughts gather. Almost everyone in this story behaves graciously (there is no antagonist as such) and this comes as something of a shock, an appalling snap and shallow judgement of the times we are living in right now. When indecency, lies and lack of atonement or consequences are the norm, we have to work harder to fight them. It reminded me of the George Orwell quote, "In a time of deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act." High time for a revolt. Director and writer Greta Gerwig throws her version of this famous book into the ring. It's so full of joy, heart and wisdom, you could believe that if he was brave enough to face it in said ring, Trump would die of shock before the end of the first few pages. It would be water to Trump's Wicked Witch of the West. It may be hopelessly naïve to say so but Little Women is what people could be like; considerate, generous, caring and loving. I hope that's a call to action rather than the rosy glow of nostalgia shrugged off by today's cold algorithms and cooler indifference.

While their father is away sermonising for the fighting men on the woke side of the US Civil War, four sisters live in a modest house with their mother trying to make ends meet with few resources. Played by Laura Dern, Marmee March is kindness personified hiding her scarf in an offered blanket given to the needy in winter. Although unshowy, hers is a disarmingly honest performance (it's hard to be so convincing as such a morally good character). More sensitive Academy members might recognise the performance as being a cut above and although I've yet to see Marriage Story, I hear Dern is superb in that too. Her four daughters, especially as an ensemble are utterly believable and more importantly quite distinct from each other. There's the unambitious Meg (Emma Watson), whose goals are prosaic ones. The musically gifted Beth (Eliza Scanlen) is a delicate soul who finds wisdom in the darkest times. Prospective artist Amy (Florence Pugh) seems to have been cut from more practical cloth than her three sisters. Women's futures in the 19th century were inextricably linked with husband choices (preferably rich ones), the practical route to a more secure future. As is said more than once in the film, marriage is an economic contract and women were as politically powerless then as any time in human history. They had no vote, couldn't officially earn and all money, property and offspring became their husband's after marriage. That, I did not know. It is extraordinary that men got away with this 'accepted' behaviour for so long. Going against the grain and adopting the role of feminist vanguard is the fourth sister and the star of the show, Josephine 'Jo' March (Saoirse Ronan – I believe the Irish name is pronounced 'Sir-shur'). It is the film's choicest part and Ronan commits to it wholeheartedly. Jo is a writer who has to suffer a particularly spiteful act in the days when there were no such things as 'back ups'. She shares such a similar face shape as her onscreen mother, that when both on screen together it's harder to believe that they are not mother and daughter. Jo is the very heart of the film, which is unsurprising given that it's her book on which the film is based, one printed and bound at the close. That's hardly a spoiler. Apparently Ronan cast herself as Jo, which Gerwig agreed was a very 'Jo' thing to do. Ignore those who complained about the wayward accents. Yes, Little Women is nothing if not one hundred per cent an American story but just because you know the sisters are English, Irish and Australian, there's no point in focussing on this. One of the great pleasures of the film is the interaction between the girls and the overwhelming physicality of the way their relationships are framed. Without mobiles and screens in earlier times, the lens is sharply focussed on human relations with precious few distractions. When the sisters are all in the same scene, they drape themselves around each other in such a way that I suspect boys might not. I'm not sure how sisters can be so physically intimate without the slightest breath of sexuality in the air. If it were four brothers, this intimacy might express itself more in mock violence. If so intertwined, the male of the species would be judged very differently (unless you've just scored a goal) and this is both a pity and a curiosity. In these days of gender fluidity, I'm not sure what rules, if any, apply now but from my own experience, females were always more tactile with each other with no suggestion of sexual attraction.

Laurie and Jo share a friendship moment in Little Women

Jo meets a rich neighbour's son, Laurie (Timothée Chalamet). Strikingly attractive, reed thin with a self-confident swagger and unruly hair, Laurie seems aimless without the partial rudder of his close but non-romantic relationship with Jo. I am assuming we've all been in platonic relationships with people sometimes wishing it might be otherwise. Sex plays havoc with friendships and muddies waters you always thought needed to be crystal clear through which to navigate. When you share a physical closeness with a loved one without sexual intimacy, it can be wonderfully satisfying. Once desire moves in, there goes the neighbourhood. Romance and a rebellion against it are at the heart of the story. Love and all of its aspects are carefully examined through the fate of each sister and without doubt one of the more affecting moments for me was one of the sisters acknowledging her own passing from childhood to womanhood without the essential knowledge that the child is still there but carrying a little more emotional weight and responsibility. This is something she may learn later. Most children think that you cross a thin line from one phase of life to the other, a single step from a protected and cosseted state to a 'grown up' status with added demands. As far as I can tell, going from childhood to adulthood takes about eighty years if you are lucky. I've not read the book but I'm going to assume it's a linear tale (I just scanned through it and this seems correct). Gerwig has chosen to present the story Pulp Fiction style – this must be what she means by doing "…something radical with it." – and there are times where even the hardest concentration falters in immediately recognising what time frame we have now entered. Hair length, weather, colour grading and light are the best indicators of temporal shifts. I must say that I think the time-hopping works well in the lion's share of transitions allowing connections and points to be made, those impossible to evoke on a linear timeline. They also allow grief to be softened by getting to see some characters again after we lose them.

Some familiar faces round off the cast. Meryl Streep plays a very entertaining moneyed aunt who steals each scene she's in with simply exasperated looks. She is rich and therefore needs no man but she acknowledges women's utter dependence on the whims of men at the time and it's really spectacularly unfair. Streep was instrumental in promoting one of the more famous speeches in the film (one not in the book), which was hastily scribbled on set on the day of filming. It was to make modern audiences better understand how things were for women at the time – not great. Chris Cooper as the elderly Mr. Laurence is a gentle soul who uses his wealth as poverty softeners for others. None of his wisdom seems to have rubbed off on his son, Laurie. Cooper will always be most memorable to me as the frustrated neighbour in American Beauty. There's also Bob Odenkirk as the returning father of his 'little women'. He is of course most well known for playing the shifty lawyer in Breaking Bad and its spin off, Better Call Saul. Alexandre Desplat's jaunty and emotional orchestral score fits the film beautifully with short cues extremely well but sparingly utilised. Gerwig's direction is unfussy but very effective never calling attention to camera moves or arty, self-conscious framing. It's very sensitively shot by Yorick Le Saux and some of the locations are gorgeous. Please tell me they weren't CG creations. Gerwig does just what Guillermo del Toro advised Alfonso Cuarón to do before the latter accepted the reigns of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban – trust the story. There were a lot more 'F' bombs involved but you can read about that here**.

In today's global climate of darkness and gloom, Little Women is that light in a very dark place that must be encouraged to burn even brighter. It's the iced pint of milk that doesn't hit the sides as it's swallowed after vigorous exercise, that shock of something good which should be something nice and ordinary if we had our compass bearings correct. The film is funny, very moving and a rap on 2020's knuckles, an admonishment urging us to try and be better human beings. Give it a go. As Meg says in the novel after a Christmas family sacrifice, "That's loving our neighbour better than ourselves, and I like it." Little Women is very warmly recommended.

 


* https://time.com/5743438/greta-gerwig-little-women-interview/

** https://www.indiewire.com/2018/09/alfonso-cuaron-harry-potter-prisoner-azkaban-guillermo-del-toro-1202000189/

Little Women poster
Little Women

USA 2019
135 mins
directed by
Greta Gerwig
produced by
Denise Di Novi
Amy Pascal
Robin Swicord
written by
Greta Gerwig
from the novel by
Louisa May Alcott
cinematography
Yorick Le Saux
editing
Nick Houy
music
Alexandre Desplat
production design
Jess Gonchor
starring
Saoirse Ronan
Emma Watson
Florence Pugh
Eliza Scanlen
Laura Dern
Timothée Chalamet
Tracy Letts
Bob Odenkirk
James Norton
Louis Garrel
Jayne Houdyshell
Chris Cooper
Meryl Streep

UK distributor
Columbia Pictures Corporation Ltd.
UK release date
26 December 2019
review posted
3 January 2020

See al of Camus' reviews