By my count, there have been at least a dozen film and television productions of “Little Women,” including two silent pictures, a BBC miniseries and a musical. So what is it about Louisa May Alcott’s autobiographical novel of the fabulous but impoverished March sisters coming of age in 1860s New England that keeps filmmakers coming back for more? Primarily it’s that Alcott’s women are such splendid characters, decent people with distinct personalities. It’s a timeless story but it also gives each generation the opportunity to see these lives through the sensibility of the day.
The most famous “Little Women” was George Cukor’s 1933 version starring Katherine Hepburn. In the midst of the Great Depression, a sense of selflessness and community prevailed. Now, in the latest take, written and directed by Greta Gerwig (“Lady Bird”), the feminist slant of the story is more important in play. As one of the sisters argues, “Women have minds and souls as well as heart and talent.”
Gerwig modernizes the material and gives it momentum by chopping up the narrative so it moves back and forth in time rather than telling a linear story. It’s as if we’re looking back over our shoulder at the process of girls becoming women until the story catches up with the present.
All four of the sisters are artistic. At the center of the melodrama is Jo (Saoirse Ronan), a willful and untamed spirit who desperately wants to be a writer, but at the same time she needs to find her place in the world. Her older sister Meg (Emma Watson) is an actress, but more conventional than Jo. Amy (Florence Pugh), an aspiring painter, is the youngest of the sisters, always a bit in Jo’s shadow and resentful because of it. At first she feels a responsibility to marry rich to keep her family afloat. She is the most pragmatic of the girls—until she isn’t—and that’s the life lesson she must learn. Beth (Eliza Scanlen) is the most warmhearted of the sisters and brings a special sensitivity to her piano playing, a grace note through her failing health. Their mother Marmee (Laura Dern) is no longer a little woman but she remembers what it was like and lovingly imparts her wisdom to her daughters.
As their father (Bob Odenkirk) is away fighting in the Civil War (Jo regrets that she can’t join up too), the family is left to fend for itself and forms a tightly knit if not always harmonious unit. At their best, they joyfully perform plays in their attic that Jo has written, putting on deep English accents and howling with laughter. At their worst, Amy vindictively sets fire to the manuscript of Jo’s novel after her sister won’t take her along to a ball. But whatever happens between them, their bond is deep and unbreakable.
The scenes insider the March cottage, where much of the action takes place, are bathed in the warmth of a red glow supplied by cinematographer Yorick Le Saux. The period costumes, too, by Jacqueline Durran, are lovely, but they are not the finery of Downton Abby (hems are singed and money for dresses is scarce). I imagined the girls putting on their everyday clothes upstairs before running down for breakfast, much as we would throw on a pair of jeans.
Into this scene of domestic contentment comes a literal wild card: the wealthy neighbor Mr. Laurence’s (Chris Cooper) grandson Laurie. Played with unpredictable charm and loose-limbed grace by Timothée Chalamet, the young actor is great fun to watch. At one point or another, he flirts with all of the sisters, more out of exuberance than calculation, and in turn they all have a crush on him. But the real chemistry is between soul mates Laurie and Jo, both irreverent, playful and beautiful. So it seems entirely fitting when she suggests they run off and join a pirate ship. They appear to be a natural fit, but things don’t always work out as they should.
As the film opens, Jo has just sold her first story to a New York publisher and races through the period-perfect streets with an infectious exuberance, her long blond hair blowing in the breeze. From start to finish, Ronan veritably shines with the life energy of her character. She radiates not just charisma but a keen intelligence that elevates her from an actor to a star. All the performances are so good here that Meryl Streep as the tart spinster aunt just blends in with the ensemble.
Though she is a force of nature, Jo eventually realizes she can’t control everything, neither the fate of her family nor her own fortunes. When she does finally sell her novel at the end of the film, in a scene added by Gerwig, Jo battles her editor’s standard sexism for editorial and financial control of her work. She is more successful with the contract than the content and must ultimately supply the happy marriage her editor requires, which turns out to be a happy ending for her as well.
There are disappointments and tragedies along the way, but the characters Alcott created over 150 years ago remain basically cheerful souls. She once said she had a lot of sadness in her life so she wanted to create jolly tales. These are all amiable people with good intentions. Gerwig and the cast present these gentle folk with such conviction that we can’t help but believe in them. And, boy (or girl, in this case), can we use a dose of human kindness now. “Little Women” may be a fairy tale, but isn’t that why we go to the movies in the first place?