How do you make a “Little Women” that speaks to today while honoring the story in its own time and its timelessness? With loving care and the subtlest of surgical interventions from a filmmaker who knows just how much Louisa May Alcott’s 1868 novel means to the DNA of American womanhood.
That filmmaker is Greta Gerwig, an actress (“Frances Ha”) who turned writer-director (“Lady Bird”) and who with this movie arrives as a major storyteller, breezily confident in dealing with both Alcott’s lighter and more serious sides while extending a delightful depth of feeling to everyone onscreen. I can’t think of a better cinematic holiday gift for moviegoers to give themselves, and, yes, that goes for men as well as women (and maybe doubly, at that).
Any film adaptation of “Little Women” stands or falls on its Jo, the most headstrong of the four March sisters and Alcott’s own stand-in — a creative tomboy yearning to be a writer. A young and dazzling Katharine Hepburn set the template in George Cukor’s 1933 version, and winsome Winona Ryder refashioned the role for Generation X in Gillian Armstrong’s lovely 1994 filming. (I can’t speak to the 1949 version with June Allyson in the lead, but, hey, Elizabeth Taylor as Amy.) Many people thought the Armstrong movie couldn’t be improved upon, but Gerwig’s “Little Women” is its co-equal in many ways and more daring in some.
For one thing, it’s the first “Little Women” to be nearly stolen by its Amy. In the Civil War-era constellation that is the March home, with father (Bob Odenkirk) off at war and Marmee (Laura Dern) holding the home together, Meg (Emma Watson) is the oldest and most traditional; Jo (Saoirse Ronan) is the pusher of societal envelopes; Beth (Eliza Scanlen) is a shy, sickly pianist; and Amy (Florence Pugh) is impulsive and immature. Ronan, so fine as Gerwig’s adolescent self in “Lady Bird,” is equally good as Jo, and we feel her fierce love of family alongside her overwhelming need to create. The director takes the risk of rearranging the novel’s chronology, intercutting between the heroine’s early adulthood in New York, where she writes pulp stories and tries to sell them under pseudonyms, and her youth in Concord, with its privations, calamities, and abiding sisterly love.
The gamble falters occasionally with a confusing transition or two, where the audience has to look to costume and hairstyle to reorient when and where we are. For the most part, though, the reshuffling works, casting a honeyed glow of nostalgia around the earlier chronological sequences and rendering Amy’s struggles as a young would-be painter in Europe with nearly the force of her sister’s.
Much of that has to do with Pugh, who has had a very good year (with leads in “Midsommar” and “Fighting With My Family”) and who brings an ebullient energy to Amy that’s a joy to watch. This “Little Women” remains Jo’s story but it extends its empathy in sisterhood with a warmth that is returned fourfold.
Gerwig has cast her movie with skill and with luck: Meryl Streep glowering comically in the corners as grouchy Aunt March; the ever-reliable Chris Cooper as neighboring Mr. Laurence; and especially the sigh-guy of the moment, Timothée Chalamet, as the neighbor’s grandson Theodore “Laurie” Laurence, perhaps the first “boy next door” in American literature. The 1933 film had Douglass Montgomery in the role (who?), the 1949 version had Peter Lawford (huh?), the 1994 had Christian Bale (hot-cha). Chalamet is more than worthy, combining the genial playfulness of youth, a passionate ardor for Jo, and a world-weary (and slightly comical) self-pity when she turns him down.
I’m sorry, was that a spoiler? Actually, that plot turn has been a perpetual thorn in the side of 150 years of readers, most of whom have felt very strongly that these two belong together. But it’s also Alcott’s most radical act, withholding the romantic happy-ever-after that every story about women is (still) supposed to end with in favor of a more independent path that takes her to New York, harrumphing male publishers (Tracy Letts), and an intellectual and emotional match with the more mature Professor Bhaer (played here by the dashing French actor Louis Garrel, so no great loss).
Gerwig’s gentle rebalancing somehow stiffens the story’s spine, so that Jo’s story aligns more clearly with every creative woman — every creative person — who has journeyed to the city to make it their own, whether in a boarding house in 19th-century Manhattan or a studio apartment in 21st-century Brooklyn. It allows the film’s Meg to struggle with youthful marriage and poverty much as the book’s Meg does. It presents Dern’s Marmee as a more hardheaded realist than we’re used to. And it gives Amy the space to tack between Jo and Meg, between her desires for independence and domesticity, in a way that Pugh brings heartbreakingly to life, never more so in a scene — the director’s invention — in which she explains to Laurie the very real powerlessness she has as a woman in this society.
It’s to Gerwig’s great credit that this monologue doesn’t stick out like a nose-ring on a March sister but rather nestles neatly and completely in the film’s larger canvas. The technical aspects of “Little Women” are superb, with those Transcendentalist Massachusetts locations captured with spirit by cinematographer Yorick Le Saux and music by Alexandre Desplat that almost (but not quite) erases the memory of Thomas Newman’s glorious score for the 1994 film. But the achievement of this wonderful movie goes beyond the specifics of its production. Gerwig has reimagined the novel back to its roots, as the story of not just one woman but all the women Louisa May Alcott may have lived with or known or been. It is an offering — to her, to them, and to us.
Written and directed by Greta Gerwig, based on the novel by Louisa May Alcott. Starring Saoirse Ronan, Florence Pugh, Emma Watson, Eliza Scanlen, Timothée Chalamet, Laura Dern, Louis Garrel, Meryl Streep, Chris Cooper. At Boston theaters, suburbs. 134 minutes. PG (thematic elements, brief smoking)