Greta Gerwig was coming off her substantial success as director of “Lady Bird” when we began to hear she was going to write and direct a screen version of Louisa May Alcott’s “Little Women.” Now this film is playing in town.
Its story follows the plot of the novel, but with a tick that turns into an odd sort of claim at the very end. The four March girls are living with their mother in a large house outside of Concord, Massachusetts.
The teen-aged girls each have an artistic bent. Jo (Saoirse Ronan, star of “Lady Bird”) writes stories. Meg (Emma Watson) can act. Amy (Florence Pugh, who has the strong turn here) can paint. Beth (Eliza Scanlen) plays the piano well.
The Civil War is on. Pa, a gentleman who has lost his money, has gone off to preach. Still, the Marches try to keep up their charitable responsibilities. They are good but not well-off.
Across the way lives the wealthy widower Mr. Laurence (Chris Cooper, made up to look like Mark Twain). As the movie progresses, he is good to Beth, who contracts scarlet fever while visiting the local poor.
Mr. Laurence hosts his rich and supposedly attractive grandson, Laurie, and Laurie’s tutor. Laurie flirts with tomboy Jo. Meg marries the tutor and has twins.
The girls’ rich aunt (Meryl Streep, predictably) believes at least one of the girls will have to marry someone rich who can then support the whole bunch of them. She takes Amy, who has turned into an antagonist of Jo’s, to Europe.
There, Amy meets an eligible young man who is interested in her. But she also meets Laurie again, and they seem to be attracted to each other.
Jo goes to New York City to be a governess and to further her writing career. After meeting a poor German teacher, she returns home to help nurse Beth. And so on.
Along the way there is literal “skating on thin ice” and so much hugging and cuddling one wonders if the Marches aren’t part puppy.
There are also scenes during which Jo’s writing is reviewed by her publisher —publishers, like deans, are always wrong.
Gerwig has chosen not to tell the story front to back. Instead it runs most of the time in two time frames with action intercut. Here, Jo has sold her hair to pay for her mother’s trip to nurse Papa. Then the next scene will go back in time to the establishment of the secret message box in the glade, say.
Back and forth we go. However, besides the haircut there isn’t much in the costuming or behavior of the characters to let us know what is happening when.
This problem becomes pronounced, especially as Ronan and Watson (perhaps among others) are obviously too old to pass for teens. Moviegoers, including even those who know the story, will have to think about when the event before them is taking place.
When the viewer is reminded that what they are watching is a human creation, a fiction, they are less likely to enjoy the entertainment.
Complicating this further is Gerwig’s tendency to let scenes go long. The seventh film version of “Little Women,” does not move along briskly.
Then at the end, Gerwig the writer seems to be trying to use the two time-frame device to suggest the story as Jo experiences it is being influenced by the preferences of the publisher. This makes “Little Women” into a story about story telling, what 50 years ago we used to call “metafiction.”
This is not to say that the film won’t entertain those who have enjoyed the book. Even with its sometimes misleading music, the laughable men’s clothes, and its tendency to give us more sentiment and stock action than Dickens, the movie will please most Alcott fans.
But, then, didn’t the sixth movie version of the novel (with Winona Ryder) please them? How about the June Allyson one? The Susan Dey? The Katharine Hepburn?