“Little Women,” writer-director Greta Gerwig’s modern adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s 1868 novel, is a keenly fresh adaptation of Alcott’s writing and an ebullient celebration of female potential and spirit.
The film, Gerwig’s sophomore work (after “Lady Bird”), combines the novel, material from Alcott’s letters, which illustrate the author’s ahead-of-her-time sensibilities, and Gerwig’s own interpretations.
Like the book and previous film adaptations, the movie follows the artistic March sisters — Jo (Saoirse Ronan), Meg (Emma Watson), Amy (Florence Pugh) and Beth (Eliza Scanlen) — as they grow up in a cozy Massachusetts house run by their warmhearted mother Marmee (Laura Dern), while their father (Bob Odenkirk) is away in the Civil War.
Gerwig has split the narrative. One section transpires in the late 1860s, when the sisters are in their 20s. The other is seven years earlier. The adult scenes are primary; the flashbacks will seem over-honeyed unless viewed as golden memories.
Jo now lives in New York, where she sells a manuscript to publisher Mr. Dashwood (Tracy Letts).
Oldest sister Meg has shelved thespian dreams for a loving marriage to a near-penniless tutor (James Norton). Youngest sister Amy is studying painting in Europe and, pressured by cranky Aunt March (Meryl Streep, entertaining), looking for wealthy husband material. Physically fragile, piano-playing Beth lives at home. The film underscores Alcott’s focus on how when women’s options for earning a living are minimal, marriage is, as Amy puts it, an “economic proposition.”
In the memory flashbacks, the sisters are rambunctious girls who play, fight and stage Jo-penned plays.
Pivotally, they obsess over boy next door Laurie (Timothée Chalamet), who lives with his kindly grandfather (Chris Cooper). Laurie becomes Jo’s soul mate. Amy, jealous, loves Laurie romantically.
Naturally, Gerwig includes classic Alcott ingredients: the hair traumas, the ice-skating incident, Jo’s rejection of Laurie’s proposal, the Beth tragedy.
The film isn’t without frustrations. Meg is rather a bore. Marmee is too saintly.
But if headstrong Jo and Amy dominate the show, they do so with sparkle.
Ronan brings Jo — previously played by Katharine Hepburn, June Allyson and Winona Ryder — to life luminously.
A force of intelligence, talent and emotion, Jo is captivating whether elated over selling a story, upset when scholar Friedrich Bhaer (Louis Garell), her future love interest, critiques her work, or admitting her independence has made her lonely.
Ronan’s scenes with “Lady Bird” costar Chalamet are a joy.
Gerwig’s tweak to Jo’s ending cleverly honors both Alcott’s book and the story she’d likely have published had 19th-century attitudes allowed it.
As for Amy, Pugh and Gerwig have transformed her from a petty brat into a sensible and wise young woman. When she articulates how she has long felt secondary to Jo, in areas ranging from talent to love, she earns viewers’ sympathies.
Gerwig’s material is resonantly emotional, and her shifting between past and present, an approach that often leaves viewers feeling yanked around, proves effective.
It all adds up to a still-relevant call for women’s equality and a timeless salute to sisterhood.
Cinematography and costume and production design, too, are impressive. See this movie on a big screen.
REVIEW : Little Women ★★★½
Starring: Saoirse Ronan, Florence Pugh, Emma Watson, Timothée Chalamet
Written and directed by: Greta Gerwig
Running time: 2 hours, 14 minutes