Writer-director Greta Gerwig knows exactly what she wants to achieve in adapting Louisa May Alcott’s 19th century classic novel and she succeeds admirably, infusing the original with fresh energy and perspective. Her cast is splendid, especially Saoirse Ronan, who towers as the feisty Jo, obviously seen by Gerwig as embodying ahead-of-her-time determination not to be deprived of opportunities because she is a woman.
I have only two misgivings about this version—Gerwig’s insistence on mixing time frames and using a loud score that however creative is often intrusive in competing with the dialogue it threatens to drown out.
Gerwig’s screenplay shuffles the time deck somewhat, adding a bit of confusion, but the decision is not serious enough to undercut the basic success of the story telling and characterizations.
The director’s choice of cast members imbues the film with vitality, and her insight into Alcott’s writing enables the director to stress what the story has to say that is relevant to young women today. Jo has a key speech to illuminate the need for a level of independence. Also showing Jo standing tough in a negotiation to get her novel published increases the overall impact.
Laura Dern also excels as Marmee, mother of the four March daughters, and gives the film a particular glow as she sympathetically sets the standards for their outlook toward others, especially those less fortunate. The other sisters are convincingly played by Emma Watson (Meg), Florence Pugh (Amy) and Eliza Scanlen (Beth).
Meryl Streep stakes out her own territory as Aunt March, who has her own vision of what the young women should do with their lives. As usual, Streep is utterly believable in her characterization.
As for the men, Gerwig taps Timothée Chalamet to play Laurie, the young man who unsuccessfully woos Jo. Chalamet has already shown himself to be a major actor, and he further cements that reputation here. Chris Cooper plays Laurie’s grandfather, another important role. A further male contribution to the film is that of intriguing Louis Garrel as Friedrich Bhaer, who at first tells Jo he doesn’t like her writing, a prelude to what comes later.
The settings, costumes and cinematography anchor the film to Alcott’s century, and also make the film a delight to watch. Being a male, I have never been privy to the kind of horseplay Gerwig shows between the young sisters. Sometimes it seems a bit much, but I have to take it on faith that Gerwig knows more about such matters than I do.
Despite the various previous adaptations of Alcott’s novel, there is always room for one more if it is a good one. Gerwig has succeeded in giving a new vision for this generation, and as with any good adaptation, it communicates once again why Alcott’s “Little Women” has remained so beloved. A Sony Pictures release. Reviewed December 25, 2019