It’s been filmed so many times it’s like the “Dracula” of Young Adult lit, an American novel as beloved as those Jane Austen petticoat pieces the Brits adore.
But Greta Gerwig’s version of “Little Women” does more than merely put a new generation’s mark on a classic. She rearranges the chronology, trims much that is over-familiar and adds a framing device. She cast it adroitly, took the starch out of the dialogue by making conversations fractious, chaotic and cluttered, and staged it beautifully in glorious locations covering all four seasons.
That makes this the liveliest, loveliest “Little Women” ever, practically a reinvention of “Masterpiece Theatre” fodder into something vital, fresh and new.
It’s still the story of the March sisters, mostly seen through the eyes of aspiring novelist Jo. But we meet Jo, played with too-busy-for-boys glee by Saoirse Ronan, as she’s submitting a story to a sympathetically curt New York publisher (Tracy Letts, perfect).
The lives of Jo, conventional Meg (Emma Watson), aspiring artist Amy (Florence Pugh), pianist Beth (Eliza Scanlen) and their believed mother, Marmee (Laura Dern) are followed through two timelines. In the fictive present, Jo is in New York, tutoring kids, writing and avoiding close-ties to dashing European music teacher Friedrich (Louis Garrel), and most of the other sisters and Marmee back in Concord, Massachusetts, either settled in or on the cusp of entering adult lives. And “seven years earlier,” we see their rosy late childhood, sibling rivalry, hormones, sumptuous feasts and Marmee teaching her not-quite-bourgeois charges about charity and kindess. Father is off doing his part in the Civil War.
Personalities are sketched in with a single line.
Jo — “I can’t get over my disappointment at being a GIRL!”
Meg — “I wish I had heaps of money and could have lots of servants!”
Amy — “I’ve always known I would marry rich. What’s wrong with that?”
Beth — “Marmee said we oughtn’t spend money for pleasure, when our men are suffering so in the army.”
Marmee — “Don’t let the sun go down on your anger.”
In the past, they pine for letters from father, dance at balls and despite supposed privation, are served sumptuous meals, which Marmee would love for them to donate to the poor.
They are chatterboxes, who stage Jo’s plays for the neighborhood children (always starring Beth), bicker, brawl and constantly find ways of getting into “mischief,” Marmee says.
And then there’s the rich boy next door, the grandson of the sweetly stern Mr. Lawrence (Chris Cooper). Hollywood “It” boy Timothée Chalamet gives us the most louche Theodore “Laurie” Lawrence in the history of the movies. He is catnip to the whole clan, but especially to Jo, who otherwise doesn’t give boys a second thought.
If you have any memories of the many earlier incarnations of “Little Women,” you know the rough outlines of the story and the nature of the various characters. Gerwig concentrates on Jo, leaving the others less time to make an impression.
Pugh’s fizzy, almost mercenary Amy stands out, largely to her connection to the grumpy, practical and rich Aunt March, given a regal, wizened harrumph by Meryl Streep.
“I may not ALWAYS be right, but I’m never WRONG!”
Gerwig stages three big dance numbers, two of them formal, one in a Bowery beer house. There’s a day with kites on the beach and ice skating, of course.
And as ever, everybody is just so…nice. Letts, playing publisher Dashwood, could be speaking for the audience when he wants a little more titilation and drama in Jo’s stories, the more lurid the better. In Louisa May Alcott’s world, the rich are compassionate, the sisters rarely forget to be kind and always make up, tragedies are teachable moments and crushing disappointments almost shrugged off.
The big emotional payoffs are few, this time out. Only Dern’s put-up-a-brave-front Marmee gives a hint of all that the brocade, lace and big dinners served by a housekeeper hides.
“I’m angry almost every day.”
But we don’t come to “Little Women” for that. And Gerwig, for all her chattering girls and their many, many costume changes, captured in motion by an almost always moving camera, gives the fans what they want — whimsy, family, longing and heartbreak.
Maybe, as a gaggle of teen girls were saying as I left the theater, “Winona Ryder’s still the best Jo,” and perhaps other versions have been more faithful to the novel. But Gerwig’s concocted a fresh, frothty and fun take on a timeworn classic, the perfect family film for the holidays.
MPAA Rating: PG for thematic elements and brief smoking.
Cast: Saoirse Ronan, Emma Watson, Laura Dern, Timotéee Chalamet, Eliza Scanlen, Florence Pugh and Meryl Streetp, Chris Cooper and Tracy Letts
Credits: Written and directed by Greta Gerwig, based on the Louisa May Alcott novel. A Sony/Columbia release.
Running time: 2:14