Little Women

Year: 2019
Studio: Sony
Director: Greta Gerwig
Writer: Greta Gerwig
Cast: Saoirse Ronan, Florence Pugh, Emma Watson, Eliza Scanlen, Laura Dern, Chris Cooper, Bob Odenkirk, Timothée Chalamet, Tracy Letts, Meryl Streep

Like A Wrinkle in Time, Black Panther, Captain Marvel and any other number of woke-inspired projects in Hollywood these days, this new adaptation of Louisa May Alcott's classic seems immune to public criticism, being not only about one of the most marginalised groups of people in the world today as acknowledged by Hollywood socialists everywhere, but having it in the very title. The fact it has a host of hot (as in trending, not just physically attractive) female talent on the rise both in front of and behind the camera makes it all the more headline-friendly.

I know I shouldn't be so cynical, but the content of the film itself was so empty the above is all there was left for me to think about.

I've never read Alcott's book, and I presume it's a work of high quality that's since become a classic because of what it said about equality and opportunity, themes that are no less important and worthy today than they were when it was published and (owing to global gender politics in the Weinstein and Trump era) maybe more so.

As such I didn't really know the plot – I don't particularly remember the 1990s adaptation starring Susan Sarandon and Winona Ryder. From what I can gather it's about a lower class family of girls in their late teens and early 20s, their father away fighting in the Civil War, their mother (Laura Dern, transcendent as always) burdened with expectation because of her age and the era, her girls both enjoying the meagre concession the burgeoning awareness of womens' rights and bristling against the constraints still inherent in society.

The way in to the March family and their struggles to grow and prosper is Jo (Saoirse Ronan), who wants to be a writer, presenting short stories to the gruff publisher of a newspaper (Tracy Letts) without even admitting the work is her own. The film presents him as being able to see right through her ruse – knowing all along it's her doing the writing – and he tells her to do something more heartfelt that will appeal to a female readership.

And so, holed up in the small hours of a grubby apartment in New York with her fingers constantly stained by ink while she deals with both her teenage-style impetuous temper and the affections of another resident in her boarding house, Jo writes the story of her family.

Her sister Meg (Emma Watson) is wooed by and married to a thoroughly decent local man who becomes aware of how little he can give her in material terms while she tries to listen to conflicting voices inside her telling her both to be a dutiful wife and live within her means and that she deserves all the spoils and riches in the world like her gossipy friends.

Florence Pugh is Amy, a hothead trying to find direction as an artist, and Eliza Scanlen is the soft hearted Beth, who forms a bond with the March's bereaved neighbour Mr Laurence (Chris Cooper) when he invites her to play his piano whenever she wants.

There's a local boy (Timothée Chalamet) whose affections seem as fluid as the chronology of the plot and who veers callowly between love and hate for all the March sisters to such an extent I couldn't get a handle on him.

The main problem with the whole film is that writer/director Greta Gerwig's script chops the timeline up to an extent I had no idea what was going on – the only clue we were even moving backwards and forward through time was the length of Jo's hair, and even then there was so much going on around her I spent the whole time trying to work out where all the other moving parts of the story were instead of being immersed in it.

Apart from the themes of women having to overcome insurmountable obstacles proving they can do anything I saw a strong undercurrent of the artists' right to be paid a living wage for their work (a common outlook among a lot of writer/directors), but as far as the plot goes I think it suffered a little bit from Avengers syndrome. If you have absolutely no foreknowledge of the mythology (Alcott's book, in this case, which is probably second nature to Gerwig and her creative peers), you're going to have trouble keeping up.

What is exciting however is seeing Gerwig move to another level as a director. Her career so far – no matter how good her casting, acting and scripting has been – has been more about pointing a camera at cool New Yorkers with vocabularies full of hipster put-downs than anything else. Here she's showing real chops for the production design and art direction of period detail and she deserves the wide-scope career she's headed for.

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