I’m either the best or the worst person to review the latest adaptation of Little Women. I’ve not seen any of the previous seven adaptations of Louisa May Alcott’s coming-of-age family saga — not even the George Cukor; heresy, I know — nor have I read the book.
Which is to say that you won’t find any gripes regarding the latest iteration’s fealty to the source, or, conversely, any commendations on its accuracies. As critics, we often try to be as educated about a film’s provenance as we can — my own take on Bradley Cooper’s A Star is Born was heavily influenced by my adoration for, it just so happens, the gold-standard 1954 George Cukor version — but is this really necessary to critiquing the film on its singular merits? Is there not an argument for taking the work as it as, sans the baggage of its literary and celluloid antecedents?
So I approached Greta Gerwig’s Little Women as I would any new work. And in a word, it’s ravishing. A masterly follow-up to the director’s equally masterly Lady Bird, Little Women extends this auteur’s insightful consideration of young adulthood and its many moods and textures — furthering her affinities for young women who chafe against society’s strictures.
To accomplish this, Gerwig herself seems to have allowed for fundamental distance from the novel, structuring an ambitious bifurcated narrative that oscillates between the characters’ young adulthood, after three of the sisters have left the March family home, and a formative period seven years earlier, when they all lived together as the Civil War wound to its bloody close.
Cinematographer Yorick Le Saux shoots the former scenes in more muted, naturalistic tones, while the extended flashbacks have the honeyed, nostalgic glow of rediscovered family photographs. Aside from an early subtitle explaining the first of these temporal transitions, Gerwig shifts between them with an exciting unpredictability, cutting rather than fading, and respects our abilities to keep up with her vision, creating an active rather than a passive viewing experience.
This approach allows past and present to rhyme in ways that are both richly ironic — as when Laurie (Timothée Chalamet), pleads for the marital affections of Jo (Saorise Ronan) as the only woman he’ll ever love, when we know from bookending scenes seven years hence that this is not the case — and devastating, as when the terminal illness of Beth (Eliza Scanlen), which brings the family together again, triggers memories in Jo of Beth’s previous brush with mortality.
This Little Women is less like a filmed book than a visualization of poetry, or even of jazz, in the way its themes of proto-feminism, gender roles, sacrifice and patriotism ripple across its canvas like leitmotifs, with little patience for narrative linearity. As such, I don’t feel much need to rehash the atomized plot. Suffice it to say that Jo struggles with both her aching loneliness as a spinster-in-training and the challenge of publishing her writings in a culture that only values “women’s fiction” if it asserts a patriarchal status quo.
Meg (Emma Watson), unlike Jo, has embraced marriage, though she’s betrothed to a kindly but “penniless tutor,” as another character puts it, which presents its own problems toward achieving the financial contentment she seeks. Amy (Florence Pugh), a talented artist with little appreciation for these gifts, aims to marry rich, and is torn between a man she doesn’t love and a man she can’t have.
The stellar cast includes, but is not limited to, Laura Dern as Marmee March, whose bottomless selflessness is a palpable inspiration on the girls; Meryl Streep as her caustic sister, Aunt March; Bob Odenkirk, as Father March; Chris Cooper, as Laurie’s father, who takes the budding pianist Beth under his creative wing; and Tracy Letts as Mr. Dashwood, the publisher who reluctantly agrees to release Jo’s work, albeit with a happier, less ambiguous ending: “Women [readers] want to see girls married, not consistent,” he argues.
I can only venture a guess that lines like these, and many of the other bon mots that effortlessly punctuate Gerwig’s screenplay, came from her and not Alcott, though it’s ultimately immaterial: It’s a fabulous script either way, and should be the one to beat for the Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar.
But Gerwig should not be overlooked as director, either. She has crafted a fully immersive world in which every element, from production design to costumes to acting, exceeds expectations.
Though in some ways her movie is a modernist, playful adaptation, she is in the best way a reverential classicist, with countless images that evoke John Ford. Every shot resembles the sort of painting you would like to step into, populated by characters whose values of forgiveness, family unity and love of country transcend their time and space. I know I should probably get to reading Little Women by now, but the bar is too high — it can’t be better than this.
LITTLE WOMEN. Director: Greta Gerwig; Cast: Saoirse Ronan, Emma Watson, Florence Pugh, Eliza Scanlen, Laura Dern, Timothée Chalamet, Meryl Streep, Tracy Letts, Bob Odenkirk, Louis Garrel, Chris Cooper; Distributor: Sony; Opens: Christmas Day at most area theaters