I love the 1994 version of Little Women written by Robin Swicord and directed by Gillian Armstrong, and I’ve always had a special place in my heart for the 1933 adaptation directed by George Cukor and starring Katharine Hepburn. I didn’t think either one could be topped or even equaled, but now I have to eat my words. Actress-turned-filmmaker Greta Gerwig has done the seemingly impossible: in a troubled world beset by cynicism she has created a Little Women that is physically and spiritually beautiful.
The primary requisite to pull off such a feat is inspired casting, and Gerwig has made impeccable choices: Saoirse Ronan is a perfect Jo, the intellectual tomboy who serves as ringleader for her three sisters. We first meet her as a forthright young woman who is selling stories to a New York magazine publisher, well played by Tracy Letts. This framework story gives Gerwig’s adaptation a new slant, setting the major events of Louisa May Alcott’s novel in flashback. There is no hint of contrivance here and the narrative flows exactly as it should.
Emma Watson as Meg, Eliza Scanlen as Beth, and Florence Pugh as Amy stand out in contrast to Jo and each one gets her fair share of attention. Pugh is clearly a star on the rise (soon to be seen in Marvel’s Black Widow) and threatens to steal the film, but for the fact that every character is so well delineated: Laura Dern as Marmee, Timothée Chalamet as Laurie, Meryl Streep as Aunt March, Bob Odenkirk as Mr. March, James Norton as John Brooke, Louis Garrel as Friedrich Bhaer, and Chris Cooper as Mr. Laurence.
Alcott’s characters are modern in their attitudes and actions. Gerwig sees no need to underscore what is inherent in her source material and allows the feminism to speak for itself, as it always has. That’s one reason Little Women is forever fresh and relevant. The filmmaker also revels in the details of this period piece, which sheds a light on how people lived (and got by) in the 1860s. The film is exquisite to behold, thanks to Jess Gonchor’s production design, Yorick La Saux’s cinematography, and Jacqueline Durran’s costumes, among others. Alexandre Desplat contributes a delicately beautiful score.
Here is a true Christmas gift: a rich and rewarding slice of Americana that defies the odds of doomsayers who believe that major-studio movies are on their way out. As long as Hollywood can produce a film this good and (hopefully) reach a wide audience, there is hope for the future.