My name is Meg, so that should be enough said, but I was not–alas!–named for author Louisa May Alcott’s oldest daughter in the March family of Concord, Massachusetts. I never miss an opportunity to see a movie based on this novel, and the 2019 offering starring such luminaries as Meryl Streep and Laura Dern as well as Saoirse Ronan, Timothée Chalamet, Emma Watson, Florence Pugh, and Eliza Scanlon, is simply magnificent. Directed by Greta Gerwig and costumed by veteran designer Jacqueline Duran, the “hallowed ground” that is Little Women is treated with respect and love. Because women themselves are always evolving, forever intriguing, and continuously among us, Alcott’s book–never out of print since its initial debut in 1868–and its various theatrical incarnations continue to be taken seriously.
The more one knows about the real-life Alcotts, the more attractive this 2019 version becomes. This movie does not present the audience with baby Amy, smartypants Jo, typical Meg, and sickly Beth. Instead, we meet the Alcott women as adults. Layers of flashbacks fill in the missing information. One gets more information about Amy than in any previous movie. Based on Louisa’s sister Abigail May, who was an artist, studied in Paris, and did not marry Laurie, Amy is one of the strongest, most relatable characters in the movie. She is undoubtedly Jo’s equal. Both sisters sought economic independence for women as well as the right to express personal creativity. And if you do not understand why Amy plays with her nose so often, shame on you.
Small details of this movie bring into focus Alcott parents Abby May and Bronson. The outside activities so uncommon for young ladies at the time but encouraged by their father, like the food on the tables or in the baskets–all refer to the sense of play and informality that Bronson, a teacher of young children, wished to instill in his pupils. Historically, Bronson Alcott invented recess as a part of the school day. The helter-skelter costuming is especially charming. Clothing choice makes clear that this version of Little Women is not a historical film, but about people in history who still seem current in their attitudes and ambitions.
Eliza Scanlen’s Beth is both joyful and tragic. They could have added some kittens to make her perfect. The scenes between Beth and Jo at the beach are tender and sisterly–touching! Emma Watson’s Meg made me laugh. “Daisy” in her pink ball gown and Meg holding a child and wiping spit-up off her shoulder is priceless. Women are both, and then some. Meryl Street and Laura Dern–Aunt March and Marmee–provide a deeply complex background against which the younger women improve by comparison. Jo, interpreted by Irish actress Saoirse Ronan, does her costars the favor of not overpowering them. This version of Little Women is an ensemble of sisters and all the better for it.
Louisa May Alcott received a marriage proposal earlier in her short life, but her freedom was something she would come to savor. “I’d rather be a free spinster,” she wrote in her journal, “and paddle my own canoe.” Greta Gerwig’s 2019 Little Women helps us celebrate Jo’s decision.