Little Women and Aching for Home

By Tuesday, January 28, 2020 , , ,

Emma Watson, Florence Pugh, Saoirse Ronan, and Eliza Scalen as Meg, Amy, Jo, and Beth March in Greta Gerwig's "Little Women" (Photo Credit: Wallpaper Cave)
A few days after Christmas, I settled in for the latest screen adaptation of Little Women, this time directed by Greta Gerwig and starring Irish gem Saoirse Ronan as the iconic Jo March. Somewhat to my own surprise (book purist here), I was deeply charmed and touched. The film is an aesthetic feast between its beautiful scenery, music, and production, and it presents Louisa May Alcott’s tale of domestic trials and delights with fresh potency. At its center are sisters Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy March, each of whom learns to chart a path forward within the confines of post-Civil War America. Generations of fans, including me, have debated each sister’s merits and most sympathetic qualities. However, on this journey through the familiar story, I found myself identifying strongly with a character who often sits more on the edge of the Marches’ family dynamic. We meet Theodore “Laurie” Laurence, here portrayed with eager, thoughtful spirit by Timothée Chalamet, as the lonely boy next door. Though he does not remain lonely, I still found his perspective a poignant reminder of the reality of loneliness, and at various points in the story, the March sisters must also face their own struggles with isolation and pain. Between Laurie’s journey and the other hardships weathered by the March family, I saw a stirring search for companionship and a true home that I think many will recognize.

Laurie first meets the March family when he escorts Jo and an injured Meg home in his carriage after a dance, and his bewilderment at the domestic scene that greets him is evident. The sisters noisily talk over each other, everyone hurries to tend Meg’s sprained ankle, and the kindly March matriarch (played winningly by Laura Dern) hands Laurie a scone as she says cheerfully, “Just call me Mother or Marmee – everyone does!” Laurie has the look of one who has stumbled upon something rare and mysterious. We find that, for him, it is indeed mysterious, as he was orphaned young and now has the company only of his reticent grandfather and a kind but stern tutor. As his friendship with the Marches grows, it’s clear that Laurie sees in them the warmth, family, and human connection he has always been without, and his hunger for it is palpable. Throughout the film, the camera often catches Laurie watching the sisters and Marmee as if trying to work them out, as if admiring their close camaraderie and wanting to find a way in.

As I watched, I felt most like Laurie in some scenes – watching from the outside and longing for the companionship seen in the sisters and Marmee. His position points to the prevalence of loneliness and reaches out a sympathetic hand to the viewer who may be in its throes. It certainly did for me. Watching the March sisters gather around a family fire, put on a play for Marmee, or wrestle each other on the floor gave rise to those familiar heartaches. My own battles with loneliness gave sharp contrast to those scenes in which the Marches gathered around their table in delighted unity. The sisters’ rocking laughter during their childhood games made me long for happy, uncomplicated family and friendship dynamics. Like Laurie, I felt like I was watching something that was out of reach for me personally.

The March sisters with Laura Dern as Marmee (Photo Credit: Wallpaper Cave)
And, in a way, the warmth and love and companionship I saw among the characters of Little Women are indeed out of reach right now. At the beginning of time, perfect harmony reigned, but then the world was broken by sin. We have the promise of a new creation coming, where hunger for love and connection will finally be satiated and all relationships will be made right again. But until then, we must fight to believe in that promise and work to be signposts of that coming fulfillment. It isn’t till the end of time that family and friendship will truly be uncomplicated by sin, that fellowship will be as warm and intimate and caring as it’s meant to be, and that no one will feel like an outsider anymore.

Little Women reflects this journey from harmony, to brokenness, and back to harmony, in how it contrasts Laurie and the sisters’ childhoods with their adulthood. One of the best directorial choices on Gerwig’s part was to unfold the narrative in flashback. The film anchors in what is the middle of Alcott’s book, when the March women and Laurie are in the grip of adult growing pains. Frequent flashbacks to their more idyllic childhoods emphasize the intrusion of hardship. We see that even though the Marches quickly enfolded Laurie as a brother, he is not immune to loneliness in other forms. He faces bitter disappointment when Jo refuses to marry him, and isolation once again ensues for a time. What’s more, even this family he idealizes also struggles mightily. The world they live in is one of poverty, war, and death. Marmee, the unconquerable backbone of the Marches, speaks of her near-constant battle with anger and sees deep grief both during and after the war. Fiercely stubborn Jo longs for independence, but near the film’s end, even she admits to desperate loneliness and a desire to be loved. From beginning to end, the story rings with yearning for home, family, and love. In a particularly poignant scene, Beth asks Jo if she misses Laurie despite her recent rejection of him, and Jo quietly answers, “I miss everything.”

Emma Watson as Meg, Saoirse Ronan as Jo, and Florence Pugh as Amy (Photo Credit: Wallpaper Cave)
It took time for me to notice it, but one understated technique in the film that lends weight to the story arc is in the camera work’s color filtering. The scenes of Meg, Jo, Beth, Amy, and Laurie’s childhoods are cast in warm, golden light, highlighting how their earlier years seem simpler and more innocent. Juxtaposed against these are the sequences of their complicated, trial-filled adulthood, which are framed in darker, grayer hues. But, as the film progresses, the flashbacks and flash-forwards grow closer together in time, building to an ending scene that is the culmination of everything the various characters have been longing for. As the family picnics on a beautiful sunlit lawn, children frolic, food is shared, and Marmee radiates love and pride. Jo has new purpose in her step, clearly content in the roles of published author and new wife (that’s how I’m reading it, anyway. Again, book purist here, guys). Notably, Laurie has reentered the March family fold by marrying Amy, who has loved him faithfully, albeit firmly, through his previous disappointment and has helped him become a better man in the process. In some of the final shots, Laurie cradles their new baby as he and Amy join the family table. No longer does he or anyone else look like an outsider, and laughter and harmony reign once again. And this scene is cast in the same golden colors used in the childhood sequences, subtly but powerfully noting that the story has come full circle, and that everyone has come home. It made me ache with sweet hope for the day that I’ll be home too.

The family reunited! (Photo Credit: JA Monkey)

Florence Pugh and Timothee Chalamet as Amy and Laurie (Photo Credit: Tumblr)

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4 comments

  1. I love your thoughts. They exactly mirror my own thoughts walking out of the movie. So beautiful and timely! I love your blog...you seem like a kindred spirit.... (I too love reading and Downton Abbey!) God bless. -Hanna Kramer

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    1. Thank you so much for reading and commenting, Hanna! It was a very timely film for me as well :)

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  2. Beautifully written! I love your insight and appreciate your vulnerability. Thank you for boldly sharing!

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  3. This was lovely Elizabeth and thank you for leaving a great comment to my Friedrich post. I wasn´t a huge fan of Gerwig´s film but I did like Timothee as Laurie, he is probably my favorite film Laurie so far. For once his loneliness and isolation was shown, and it was a pleasure to see his and Amy´s relationship portrayed beautifully. Did you read my evolution of laurie-essay as well? I´d be interested to hear your thoughts http://www.fairychamber.com/blog/evolution-of-laurie -Niina

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