Having read “Little Women” before the age of ten, and judging by the “U” rating for Greta Gerwig’s film dramatisation of this tale, I decided at first to give it a miss. It was only the glowing reviews and suggestion that the director had taken an interesting new take on the classic likely to appeal to adults that made me go and see it.
For those who need to be told, this is about the four very different March sisters who are left with their high-minded mother, resolved to raise them to care about those less fortunate despite struggling to make ends meet themselves, after their idealistic if impractical father has gone off to fight for an end to slavery in the American Civil War.
Greta Gerwig’s first change is to begin with a brief portrait of each sister as young women who have gone their separate ways apart from the youngest, sweet but sickly Beth who stays at home. This must all be quite confusing for those who do not know the story. The scene then switches abruptly seven years back in time to when the girls are immaturely squabbling and fighting at home when not involved in cringe-making amateur dramatics orchestrated by the budding writer and defiantly anti-ladylike Jo.
Enter spoilt but appealing rich boy Laurie living with a grandfather who shows no signs of being as severe as described, in a splendid mansion overshadowing the somewhat substantial house for a family supposed to be as hard up as the Marches. Laurie and Jo have an instant strong rapport, which Jo tends to under-value, partly since it is at odds with her determination to be free and independent. Her wealthy Aunt March strongly disapproves of this, holding that the only option for a girl with no money is to marry a rich man.
I found the performances of the sisters irritating, frenetic and exaggerated. Greta Gerwig has stated when interviewed that this was intentional “controlled cacophony”, using Alcott’s original dialogue as much as possible, delivered very fast, but for me this does not work and is too often an unpleasant and unclear listening experience. There are some good dialogues, such as when Jo and Laurie are alone together, or Jo’s bargaining with her publisher, but too many scenes are disjointed, implausible in some way, or heavy-handed when delivering the serious feminist message which Gerwig has sought to bring out of the novel.
Also, the continual flitting back and forth in time is often confusing. This is compounded by the device of creating “a story within a story” by which Jo eventually presents a publisher with the story of her family, with two possible conclusions: Jo’s feminist one in which she rejects marriage versus the conventional happy ending which the publisher insists is the only one that will sell. (This reminds me a bit of “The French Lieutenant’s Woman”.) There are a few other scenes which seem to be enacted twice in different ways, or perhaps involve a dream. This has the effect of making the film seem too contrived, less “real” and engaging.