Movie Review: Little Women

In the hands of Greta Gerwig and her wonderful cast, the classic feels fresh.

I confess that when I heard that Greta Gerwig was doing a new adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, my first reaction was: Why? After all, the Gillian Armstrong adaption with Winona Ryder came out in 1994 which was—la, la, la I can’t hear you—a mere 25 years ago. Okay, so that actually is more than a generation ago, but I loved that adaptation. Winona, at that time the coolest girl in the world, was a sassy and appealing Jo. Claire Danes, the star of my then-favorite show (My So-Called Life), was the beautifully doomed Beth, and the dreamboat du jour Christian Bale (yes, our most method-y of method actors was once a teen idol) was an irresistible Laurie. Heck, I’m even a big enough person to admit that Susan Sarandon made for a warm and wise Marmee.

So I asked myself, is this new adaptation necessary? Turns out, yes. For one thing, it’s clear that Gerwig loves the source material in a bone-deep way. One can practically see the yellowed-with-age, dog-eared, much underlined paperback that Gerwig no doubt carried with her at all times as a young girl. Indeed, she loves it so much, she’s able to mess with its timeline, in a way that feels faithful to the source material and adds new depth and dimension to the plot. Also, the film feels urgent, a word not often associated with the book, without sacrificing any of its lit-by-the-fireplace glow.

It starts, as it always does, with Jo, and I can’t imagine a better Jo than Saoirse Ronan, one of our best actors. Her Jo is smart, loving, quick-tempered, stubborn, and most importantly frustrated—in a visceral sort of way—with the status of women in society. The character of Jo is usually depicted as plucky—and she’s certainly that here—but she’s almost mournful, too, so profoundly aware of life’s inequality that it feels like an ache. As Marmee, Laura Dern portrays motherhood itself as a healing and loving force of nature but she also allows a little of her character’s frustration to bubble to the surface. “I’m angry all the time,” she admits to Jo (who, if not Marmee’s favorite daughter, is certainly the one she understands and empathizes with the most)—and it’s a bit of shock. But, of course, a woman as intelligent and capable as Marmee is would be a little angry. She simply learned to channel that anger into something decent and true.

Rising star Florence Pugh makes for an excellent Amy—funny, bratty, and, as always, smarter than she looks—but I confess I found her a bit ungainly as a 12 year old. I preferred Armstrong’s strategy of casting two actresses as Amy; who can forget a young Kirsten Dunst moaning over her life-ruining lack of limes? Still, Pugh is so amusing as the younger incarnation of Amy it’s hard to really get bent out of shape over this. And Timothée Chalamet is the perfect Laurie. Gerwig had the good sense to expand his role: We see him as a lovesick boy nearly swooning with longing for Jo. (Chalamet, as he proved in Call Me By Your Name, gives good swoon.) And later, he’s convincing as a louche and dissolute young man, heartbroken and in need of saving. The cast is rounded out by an excellent Chris Cooper as the sad Mr. Laurence, whose spirit is rekindled by the joie de vivre emanating from family next door. And, of course, there’s Meryl Streep, who makes for a deliciously unsentimental and prickly Aunt March.

Now about that timeline: Gerwig starts with Jo in New York, pursuing a writing career and having already met the mysterious Friedrich Bhaer (Louis Garrel, too good-looking for the part IMO), then toggles back and forth between her childhood and adulthood. This mostly works famously, especially when she adds a meta device where Jo interacts with an amused and skeptical publisher (the ever welcome Tracy Letts) who will eventually publish her novel. But sometimes the dual timeline can be a bit confusing (pro tip: Pay close attention to Jo’s haircut).

A few more quibbles: As Meg, the bird-like Emma Watson is miscast as Jo’s older sister. And the film indulges in a few too many anachronisms (“You’re on fire,” Bhaer says to Jo, when the edge of her skirt grazes the fireplace. “Thank you,” she replies.) Along those lines, New York-era Jo dresses a bit more like Diane Keaton in Annie Hall than a character in a 19th century novel.

But mostly, it feels magical, like a Christmas gift. What Gerwig proves is that you don’t need to be slavishly faithful to a text. If you love a book deeply enough, if you’ve truly internalized its spirit and meaning, you can riff on it in such a way that makes it feel fresh without betraying its essence. As Gerwig makes clear, Little Women is almost as relevant today as it was when it was published 150 years ago. What a meaningful tribute to a beloved work of art.