Little Women review: Greta Gerwig’s Amy March is what we want to see in movies, now and forever

Little Women review: Greta Gerwig’s Amy March is what we want to see in movies, now and forever

Female of the species

Text: Emily Heng

Perhaps you were busy vying for a coveted seat at your nearest cinema, or deeply absorbed in the tumultuous ongoings that made up GE 2020. Either way, it's fair to assume that most of us were plenty distracted last weekend — and thus, missed out on the release of Oscar-nominated film, Little Women, on Netflix. Having dropped in 2019 to a wave of rave reviews and praise, it has been lauded as a refreshing take on a seminal classic; a superb adaption comparable to the critically-acclaimed version that dropped in 1994.

As it is, both titles are masterpieces in their own right, though it's plain to see how Gerwig's understanding of Little Women differs from Armstrong's. Namely (and most notably) through the character of Amy March.

But we're getting too far ahead of ourselves. First, some context: Little Women is written by American novelist, Louisa May Alcott. It follows the lives of four sisters — Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy — through their brush-ins with love, heartbreak, ambition, and independence. Historically, Amy March (the youngest) is regarded as the least-liked of the four; a divisive figure in a cheery coming-of-age tale. As a child, she's said to be immature and materialistic, compounded by a jealous streak that translates to a rivalry with leading lady, Jo. In one of the most defining moments of the book, she burns Jo's writings, delivering a devastating blow to the aspiring writer.

Armstrong's piece stays largely true to Alcott's characterisation of Amy. Details of her actions (selfish as they might be) are glossed over. Instead, she is shown to have matured in her later years and, thus, "grown out" of her bad behaviour. Gerwig, however, comes at it with a different approach, reframing large parts of the story in Amy's perspective and fleshing out her motives. That's not to say that Amy is a reformed character per se, but rather, is given depth and moulded into someone deserving of our sympathy.

This was always Gerwig's intention. In fact, she reveals in an interview with The Atlantic that Amy struck her for "having some of the most interesting things to say." With that, we have no argument. Amy, despite her supposed naïveté, proves surprisingly observant and clear-headed throughout the film. She gives Jo insight as to writing and the importance it confers; reads Laurie to filth with regard to his lacklustre ambitions; and holds an intuitive awareness of how to utilise her femininity to her advantage, as Aunt March so astutely points out.

And yet, what's most fascinating about Amy for us — in all her shrewdness, practicality, and defiance — is how unabashedly she embraces all of it. She doesn't express distaste for the uglier, crueler parts of herself. She doesn't demur from the hard realities of life and what she'd do to get through. Attempts at demeaning her is met with a kind of brusque pragmatism and confidence that we should only hope to gain someday. "I've always known I would marry rich," she tells Laurie in (arguably) what is viewed as the climax of the movie. "Why should I be ashamed of that?"

That, in itself, lies the appeal of Amy March. The portrayal of a character that is not only capable of kindness, love, and wisdom, but also greed, pettiness, and manipulation. It's not one or the other because no person is wholly good or bad, light or dark. In 2020, we are seeking depictions of women who can be both, an amalgamation of the best and worst of human nature. In 2020, we want infinitely complex, nuanced characters — because they are reflective of real women in all of their wonderful, twisted glory. And by God, we're getting there. Because if even the most beloved of classics can get it right, why not everyone else?