Little Women (2019)
Words by Hiba Akmal
Little Women (2019)
Under Greta Gerwig’s directorial vision, Amy, the oft-overlooked March sister rises to the fore in pursuit of her dreams and ambitions. Working with Gerwig to uncover this lost complexity, Florence Pugh charms us as a vivacious and determined heroine who holds her own alongside sister Jo in this newest adaption of the beloved March women.
Literary critic Sarah Elbert’s reading of Little Women declared it to behold the seeds of the ‘All-American girl’ - a trope which she used to mean the liberated future of women living life on their own terms. Her disposition, she wrote, was scattered across the four March sisters, but bloomed most brightly in the protagonist Jo March.
So before we were graced with Carrie Underwood’s country anthem and Carrie Bradshaw’s ‘chic’ reign of NYC, there was Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy heralding the dawn of a new femme era in 1800’s America. Since then the charm of their story has reaped endless adaptations, almost one for every generation.
Now In 2019, Greta Gerwig bestowed upon us the iteration of our time, with Saoirse Ronan succeeding 1994’s Winona Ryder as Jo March and Florence Pugh as the younger Amy March. Alongside these two screen queens on whom our praise is lavished, we also are graced with the likes of Emma Watson as Meg, and none other than the grande dame Meryl Streep as Aunt March.
Now under Gerwig’s directorial vision, Amy takes on a new significance. Gerwig elevates her from the petulant younger sister to a complex and ambitious heroine in her own right. But she does so without erasing that strong-willed quality that many directors lazily skewed as bratty or immature. In fact, upon casting, Gerwig pulled Florence aside to say that this adaptation would rectify Amy’s misrepresentation and that her character arc would unfurl parallel to Jo’s in delivering the central themes of the plot.
For Jo, this comes first in the publication of her novel (financial independence) and secondly through her marriage with the smoldering Friedrich Bhaer. But for Amy, it means marrying for love, not economics, and turning down the affluent Fred Vaughn for (the minutely less affluent) Laurie.
Neither sister’s vision is lesser than the other. Both are doing something radical: rejecting the patriarchal safety net for a hand at choosing their own fate.
Being a period-era piece, wardrobe is key to setting the scene. Costume designer Laura Durran explains that ‘certain liberties’ were taken (which may explain the YouTube wardrobe historians decrying its accuracy) in assuring the outfits were true, not only to the era but to the nature of the characters themselves. So we never see Jo March in a corset. Rather, reflecting her tomboyish ways, a more androgynous, if not masculine wardrobe was curated. Choices include waistcoats, neckties and overcoats which pair with her often unbound hair to complete the look of the unruly writer. Her often visible bloomers - those loose drawers beneath the dress - were in fact a symbol of women’s activism popularized by early suffragette Amelia Bloomer, reiterating Jo’s contrarian nature.
Conversely, Amy is true Victorian Chic, and unabashedly so considering her family’s renunciation of such material pleasures for a life guided by service and generosity. Through Amy, we get to indulge our love of period fashion. Her style is elaborate and makes use of all the various pieces that complete a Victorian ensemble; the corset, bodice, dress with hoop and even when in mourning, a black bonnet with matching black organza frill.
Gerwig’s shuffling of the plot into a non-linear back and forth allows us to jointly observe Jo and Amy’s passage into womanhood as well as the peaks and troughs that mature their characters. When Beth dies, Jo’s fiery temperament - which made her the undisputed leader of the sisterly troupe - is abruptly extinguished. Holding herself responsible for not being able to revive her sister, she renounces the whole folly of making it as a female writer.
Amy in childhood is loud and self-centered, demanding no less (but perhaps more) than her perceived share in praise and attention. As an adult, the loss of Beth and strictures of womanhood set in. We see her hardened by a resignation which scoffs at those childhood dreams of artistic grandeur and concedes to a union with Fred Vaughn because marriage is an ‘economic proposition.’
Pugh’s portrayal of this maturation is tender, earnest and sobering and casts her in a light that forever sheds the mould of ‘bratty Amy’. I applaud Gerwig for a) seeing that and, b) rectifying it for the generations of women to come.
But because we are all familiar with the beloved tale- we know that in the end, a light shines on the March family again, recasting the golden glow in which Gerwig captured their childhood scenes. Jo’s novel is published with financial success. And Amy releases herself from the Vaughn courtship to turn back to Laurie, also reclaiming her right to choose in fate and love.