LITTLE WOMEN

Producers: Amy Pascal, Denise Di Novi and Robin Swicord   Director: Greta Gerwig   Screenplay: Greta Gerwig   Cast:  Saoirse Ronan, Emma Watson, Florence Pugh, Eliza Scanlen, Laura Dern, Timothée Chalamet, Meryl Streep, Chris Cooper, Tracy Letts, Bob Odenkirk, James Norton, Louis Garrel, Jayne Houdyshell   Distributor: Sony Entertaiment/Columbia Pictures

Grade:  A-

 Unlike many American classics, Louisa May Alcott’s beloved 1868 novel has been remarkably fortunate in its screen adaptations.  The 1949 MGM version directed by Mervyn LeRoy with June Allyson (and Elizabeth Taylor) is, as it were, the weak sister here, but George Cukor’s 1933 film with Katharine Hepburn remains outstanding, and Gillian Anderson’s 1994 remake with Winona Ryder holds up well.  Those two are now joined by Greta Gerwig’s well-nigh perfect adaptation, which captures the spirit of Alcott’s work with grace, affection and great good humor, while being both touching and a mite daring.

The “daring” part arises from Gerwig’s decision to tell the familiar story of would-be writer Jo Marsh (Saoirse Ronan), her three sisters—down-to-earth Meg (Emma Watson), musically-inclined Beth (Eliza Scanlen) and precocious Amy (Florence Pugh)—and their devoted mother Marmee (Laura Dern) not in straightforward chronological order, but via shifting time frames—a device that could have a disorienting effect were her script, and Nick Hoy’s editing, less skillful.  As it is, the two manage to tie the various threads together so that nothing is lost, and the emotional high points stand out all the more strongly. 

Gerwig also draws a clear connection between Jo, the aspiring author who brings her sensationalist stories to the brusque publisher Dashwood (Tracy Letts, who’s quickly becoming an indispensable character actor) and Alcott herself.  The semi-autobiographical element of the narrative has rarely been so effectively conveyed. 

The Marshes are, of course, longing for the return of the paterfamilias (Bob Odenkirk, unfortunately rather flat), who’s been injured while serving as a Union chaplain in the Civil War.  Not that they are entirely alone on their Concord homestead.  Their wealthy neighbor, the widower Mr. Laurence (Chris Cooper, as subtly controlled here as he is coarsely obvious in “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood”), consistently shows the family his support especially in times of crisis, and his grandson Theodore (Timothée Chalamet), affectionately called Laurie, becomes an integral part of the family unit, suitor to Jo, though—as quickly becomes clear—not precisely a welcome one as far as she’s concerned.

And then there’s the formidable Aunt March (Meryl Streep, in another of her take-no-prisoners supporting turns), the rich old lady who’s intent on securing good marriages for her nieces—good in the Jane Austen sense.  Her emphasis on their need to find rich husbands, of course—a point not so obliquely made as well by Dashwood in his editorial observations on Jo’s stories—is of course derailed first by Meg’s decision to wed for love—to impoverished schoolteacher  John Brooke (James Norton), Laurie’s erstwhile tutor, and then by unexpected choices made by both Jo and Amy despite her offers of sage advice—and foreign travel. 

One additional character must, of course, be mentioned: learned Friedrich Bhaer (Louis Garrel), whom Jo meets during her stay in a Boston rooming house.  He’s the figure most altered by Gerwig from Alcott’s portrayal, but it’s an entirely forgivable change.

There’s always been an underlying feminist slant to “Little Women,” of course, but Gerwig brings it to the fore, and Ronan, with her feisty performance, italicizes it.  In fact, it’s the females who dominate here.  Scanlen’s recessive quality reflects the poignant arc of Beth, and Watson’s role as a doting wife makes Meg agreeably domestic, but Pugh brings the sometimes irritating Amy pungently to life, both as a child and later as young woman dissatisfied with her own talent—and acutely conscious of not equaling her older sister.  Dern is almost as impressive as loving Marmee, who gets the opportunity to show her underlying steeliness even as she teaches her daughters the virtues of charity.

By contrast the males are for the most part rather bland.  Though Letts and Cooper are both effective in very different ways, Norton and Garrel fade into the background along with Odenkirk.  There is one exception to the rule—Chalamet, who embodies Laurie so completely, yet so unconventionally, in terms of both the character’s studied nonchalance and his desperate passion, that he very nearly steals the film. 

Gerwig’s film also scores in visual terms.  Jess Gonchor’s production design and Jacqueline Durran’s costumes are entirely convincing, and Yorick Le Saux’s cinematography captures it all without undue flourish or fuss.  Alexandre Desplat’s orchestral score might occasionally seem a bit much, but after all “Little Women” is a work of big emotions, and the music rises to the occasion when they erupt, while delicately underlining the quieter moments.

Some people might, of course, ask whether we needed another version of “Little Women.”  The answer is that perhaps every generation does in fact deserve a retelling of its own—and if so, Gerwig’s certainly does the present age proud.