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Little Women, Big Hearts

Updated: Apr 16, 2020

Little Women, dir. Greta Gerwig, 2019

If ever we needed film to supply a much-needed tonic for our caustic, worrisome times, Greta Gerwig's Little Women delivers double the dose. I'm not usually a sentimental film viewer but to say there's not a cynical or depressing note in this film is to attest to its near singular achievement as a work of art completely in keeping with the sheer innate joyousness of humanity. Don't we all just want the unbridled comfort of family, the sense we're living our lives in close concord with those we love: passionate, fierce, determined, pursuing common goodness and decency (in all its vagaries) in the face of quickening mortality? Greta Gerwig and her cast and crew seem to have approached this undertaking with something of a unified 'team objective'. One can almost imagine her rounding them all up and giving them a pep-talk on the first day of production: let's be sincere, let's be real, let's be true and let's be so un-millennial!

The March family of Alcott's source materials have their share of trials, tribulations and tragedies but Gerwig's stroke of genius is to nurture her ubiquitously talented cast towards layered performances which shed light on the inner glow of that human spark; never has familial bondage felt so real, so lived and so unquestionably a force of collective natures than in the humble bellum-era abode of this winsome family and their stately, compassionate neighbours, the Laurences. One of the film's strongest attributes rests in the palpable on-screen chemistry between various characters which comes across as so unaffected and genuine, you are tempted to think a set of cameras has been rigged up in a random Massachusetts period home and the reel has just been allowed to roll unobtrusively, recording raw it inhabitants, Big Brother style. Maybe that's not quite true because there is something overtly literary and contrived in Alcott's books - not in a bad or jarring way, but nonetheless there are certain character projections which are signposted from the minute you see (or read) them, but the triumph here is that the actors somehow convince you of their characters' freedom from authorial omnipotence. They operate as free-agents, with spirited independence, remarkably so given what I had always presumed to be a rather stolid and rigid set of attitudes and narrow-mindedness of that period. Shows how ignorant I am on the matter. But Gerwig shrewdly connects the dots back to our own modernity to demonstrate how 'current' the core themes of the books remain.

That said, not everything resonates with current sensibility, and this is the true charm, the true revelation of the film: it is both modern, but also of its singular time. By achieving this tone, it suggests what we could be if we learnt a little from Alcott's innate moral template. There is an exquisitely touching scene when Marmee (Laura Dern) has one of those late night heart-to-hearts with daughter Jo (Saoirse Ronan) in which Jo says something to the effect that Marmee never seems to get upset or show anger, to which Marmee replies, "I am angry nearly every day of my life," but the point is, she doesn't show it, she doesn't exhibit it, she substitutes it with charity, care, compassion - she avoids what is an all too common attention-seeking deficit circa 2019: she knows she has bigger priorities, more selfless concerns, a higher maternal calling. Indeed, one of the earlier scenes when she persuades the girls to forego their hearty Christmas breakfast in order to feed a starving family up the way, and the girls do so reluctantly but perfectly happily, we are taken immediately to the very essence of Alcott's vision for human empathy. This is why I say there isn't a negative frame in this film: even when Amy burns Jo's book we somehow sense that frustrating, smothering sisterly love which motivates it. It rings true, just as Meg's sense of shame in buying expensive fabric for a much-needed new dress, or Beth's stoicism in the face of fading health. There are so many scenes which are just as affecting, just as reassuring to us that life is full of twists and turns, of shifting dynamics, of several ambiguous shades, but that goodness ultimately triumphs over all else.

Properly funny at times, genuinely heartbreaking at others, but always sincere, sweeping and breathtaking in emotion, scale and aesthetic, this is a sincerely joyous and life-affirming movie.


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