Massachusetts, way back when. Jo (Saoirse Ronan) has an interview with a book publisher. He seems fairly interested in her new novel, but then says “if the main character is a girl, make sure she’s married by the end”. “Or dead”, he adds in the bit that didn’t make it to the trailer. Keep this information in mind, you may need it before the film’s over.
The March family are dirt poor, but its the Hollywood version of poverty that allows you to have neighbours who give you a piano for no real reason. And of course, although you are destitute, you have plenty of space in your hovel for the odd baby grand. The girls are told that unless they marry rich men their lives will amount to nothing, but this is never an option that is open to the woman they employ as their housekeeper. Hollywood poverty is always relative like that.
There are four March sisters who, Spice Girl-like, have each been assigned one defining characteristic, just in case we forget which one is which. So there’s the one who writes, the one who paints, the one who wants to act and the sickly one who plays piano. They are occasionally even given secondary characteristics, but none that makes them interesting. So one likes expensive dresses and another is traumatized when she cuts her hair to raise some money for the family. Because in a feminist film, what you look like is imperative, right?
At no time do you feel a sense of jeopardy, any idea that if the girls really don’t marry rich their lives will be ruined. Besides, there is always the alternative of Timothée Chalamet, who ponces around as a possible suitor for more than one girl. But he isn’t remotely poor, just not as stinking rich as the competition. You never get the feeling that they are ever going to be any worse than All Right (ie way more privileged than most of the population at the time).
And the Chalamet character is so vacuous that you assume that the only reason anyone would go for him would be the high cheek bones. He might be easy on the eye, but has nothing interesting to say. Timothée, you were so good in Call me by your Name. Why have you been so dull in pretty much every film you’ve been in since?
In between the inconsequential romantic dilemmas, we are treated to Debutantes’ balls, fancy weddings and lots and lots of pretty skirts and parasols. Its as if we never joyously consigned Merchant Ivory films to the dustbin of history. For a film that claims to be about the travails of the poor, there is a hell of a lot of opulence on show.
Notwithstanding any of this, the film’s scream for justice is clearly on the side of the angels. It is bursting with righteous indignation at the treatment of women, then and now. Why is it assumed that women have no creative power of their own? Why should the wealth of married women be signed over to their husband? And if a woman does want to stay at home and raise a family, what kind of feminism would want to prevent her?
Suitable diatribes are put into the mouths of many of the female characters, who are each in their own way dissatisfied with the role that society has allocated them. And yet, for all the emoting there is little dialogue. Usually all we hear is a strident rant which eloquently explains what is wrong in the world with great conviction. But there is no engagement, no discussion, no attempt to actually change things.
And for a film that is supposed to be standing up to the patriarchy, the celebration of the bourgeois family is greater than anything this side of EastEnders. Anyone who threatens familial cohesion is immediately punished. So, if you fall out with your sister, she nearly drowns in the next scene and you’re forced to make up. Short of a few bob? No problem, a rich relative will leave you a huge house in their will. There’s no problem that can’t be solved with good connections and a group hug.
This dilemma of wanting to change the world but not too much is most evident in the fudge of an ending. For the sake of avoiding plot spoilers we need to elide this a little, but let’s just say that the trailer’s suggestion that we won’t be putting up with any of the old crap, is at best partly right. Looking at things charitably, its a cop out, using a device much better used by The French Lieutenant’s Woman to try to appeal to everyone. If we make concessions this time round, the argument goes, we’ll be stronger in the future. But will we? Really?
Having said all this, Little Women didn’t (just) get all the pre-Oscar plaudits because of a collective lack of critical judgment. Ronan is great as the feisty Jo, the book’s tole model for any girl with the slightest capability of independent thought. The acting and cinematography is at the very least highly efficient. But if this is the best we can offer, we’ve still got a way to go.