It’s the Louisa May Alcott novel that most women cherish and some guys approach like Kryptonite. Thankfully, writer-director Greta Gerwig has not betrayed the feminine gaze that made the two-volume 1860s novel a literary landmark. Far from it. Instead, she shows why this story of four sisters and their mother, living in a house without men (their chaplain father is off serving in the Civil War), is both surprisingly timely and enduringly timeless.
Isn’t Alcott’s warhorse novel milked dry, you ask? Not with Gerwig, who scored a hit with her own coming-of-age story in Lady Bird, in charge. Plus, the last film version, directed by Gillian Armstrong, was 25 years ago. Mixing the tale of the four March sisters of Concord, Massachusettls (the film was exquisitely shot on location by Yorick Le Saux) with her research into Alcott’s life — and cutting back and forth from the sisters as they cope with the pressures of art, commerce, marriage, identity and independence — the writer-director invigorates the material for a new generation.
The actors could not be better, including Laura Dern as Marmee, the mother of a brood their father (Bob Odenkirk) calls “little women.” Marmee knows better. The sublime Saoirse Ronan is a force of nature as the defiant, tomboyish Jo, the Alcott stand-in as a fledgling writer bucking the system. It’s not hard to see Jo in Gerwig, whose performances in Frances Ha and Mistress America — both directed by her partner Noah Baumbach — reflect an irresistible can-do vivacity that Ronan captures perfectly. In one scene, the grownup Jo faces off with her editor, Mr. Dashwood (a terrific Tracy Letts), who instructs her on the manuscript that will become Little Women: “Make it short and spicy. And if the main character’s a girl, make sure she’s married by the end. Or dead, either way.” Jo rebels, of course, but only up to a point, slyly giving in on some areas in exchange for financial compensation and copyright ownership. (Alcott, who never married, did the same.)
The other March sisters pursue futures hardly favored by their wealthy Aunt March (Meryl Streep enjoying the hell out of playing a sharp-tongued old biddy). Aunt March’s dictum to “marry rich” is ignored by Meg (Emma Watson), the beauty who weds penniless schoolteacher John Brooke (James Norton). And Beth (Sharp Objects discovery Eliza Scanlen), the sickly musical prodigy who brings out the generous heart of Mr. Laurence (Chris Cooper), the aggrieved widower next door. It’s Laurence’s heartthrob grandson, Laurie (Timothée Chalamet), who figures most strongly in the lives of the March sisters, who see him at various times as a romantic ideal. It’s an impossible role that Chalamet invests with innate charm and poignant vulnerability. His scenes with Ronan catch fire as independent Jo rejects this lovesick suitor with a certainty even she knows she’s faking.
It’s Amy, the youngest March sister brought to life by a revelatory Florence Pugh, who sets the plot into motion. Over the years, Amy has been vilified on page and screen for burning Jo’s manuscript and seducing Laurie. But Pugh is brilliant at finding the bruised heart of this wannabe painter whose ambition matches Jo’s but whose talent falls short. And there’s the matter of the economics of being a woman unable to make her own money in a man’s world: As Amy lashes out at Laurie: “If I had my own money, which I don’t, that money would belong to my husband the moment we got married. And if we had children, they would be his, not mine. They would be his property.”
This rousing speech might inspire some to accuse Gerwig of attempting to inject feminist doctrine into a period piece. Except the words come from Alcott, as does the usually repressed Marmee’s confession to Jo: “I’m angry every day of my life.” The marvelous Dern builds to that moment with rending sincerity. All praise to Gerwig for bringing out the roiling passions in a book that has often been mined for sentiment, and for honoring the author without clipping the wings of her own wit and soaring imagination.