There have already been several film adaptations of Louisa May Alcott’s beloved 1868 novel Little Women, and why not? After all, who ever gets tired of Jo burning off Meg’s hair? But the latest, from Greta Gerwig, is so clever and spirited and vigorous and engaging it knocks all the others into a cocked hat. This version is, I had read, Little Women for ‘a new generation’ but just so we’re clear, the ‘old generation’ like it perfectly fine. They love it, in fact. There’s life in us yet. Sometimes.
This has a stellar cast and stars practically everyone: Saoirse Ronan (Jo), Emma Watson (Meg), Florence Pugh (Amy), Eliza Scanlen (Beth; oh God, Beth), Laura Dern (Maaaarmeeeeeeee) and Meryl Streep as a wonderfully scene-stealing Aunt March. It doesn’t begin like the book, or the other adaptations, with Jo grumbling: ‘Christmas won’t be Christmas without presents.’ Instead it starts midway through, with Jo in New York trying to sell her stories to a gruff, mutton-chopped publisher (Tracy Letts, ffs), who informs her, tellingly: ‘If the main character is a girl make her married by the end. Or dead.’ The narrative then criss-crosses back and forth through time in a way that also incorporates the life and dilemmas of Alcott herself. Quite how this is accomplished is too lengthy to explain here. All you need know is that it properly works.
Little Women was not, I should say, my favourite book growing up. That was The Incredible Journey or maybe Old Yeller. (Oh God, Old Yeller.) But it must have stuck as the March sisters all came flooding back. There’s Meg, who is mild and sensible and the least remarkable (Watson’s performance is the least remarkable, so that is fitting) and Jo, who is boyish and loud and literary, and Amy, who is selfish and a bit of a bitch, and Beth… can we just agree to never mention Beth again? Thanks. They are living in genteel poverty in Massachusetts with Pa away fighting the Civil War, although they are not without male company, as across the way lives a rich old man and his orphaned grandson Laurie (Timothée Chalamet!), who becomes an integral part of their lives and is always aching to see what they are up to.
Not much, as it happens. They visit the poor. They attend the odd ball. Amy falls through the ice and Jo saves her, even though Amy destroyed her manuscript. (If you ever tire of Amy burning Jo’s manuscript, you are certainly tired of life.) But they are also navigating love and marriage and rivalries and work and their individual artistic gifts. This is, Gerwig has said, about ‘women and art and money’ — how is Amy to be a painter without money, or Meg an actress? — although it is never shoved down your throat.
Unlike most period dramas, it does not feel as if it’s nailed to the floor. Instead it is always on the move, as are the characters, who are never static and instead run and fight and live and breathe and are full of momentum. It looks splendid, too, particularly the reds, browns and golds of a Massachusetts autumn and I did love their wardrobes even if they are layered up as if they’ve all gone quite mad in Anthropologie.
Performance-wise, Streep’s Aunt March is only in a few scenes, which makes sense, or she’d run away with it all, and Ronan’s Jo is tomboyish without overplaying it — Katharine Hepburn’s Jo, from George Cukor’s 1933 version, looked as if she was about to boff everyone in the face. But the stand-out is Pugh’s Amy. Pugh brings substance to Amy, and real guts and heart, and actually transforms her into the most interesting sister.
This is an adaptation that is as satisfying as it is intelligent. New generation? Old generation? Who cares?