Maybe we didn’t need another adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s “Little Women.” The 1868 novel has had plenty of attention over the years.
But we got a good one. Thanks to the care of writer-director Greta Gerwig and a strong cast, this “Little Women” has more than enough new wrinkles to justify its revisit to familiar territory.
Once again we are absorbed in the Civil War-era concerns of the March family, whose four daughters navigate the challenges of their age and their family’s slightly disadvantaged economic status.
Our focal point is Jo (the peerless Saoirse Ronan), a budding writer, who enjoys a flirtation with wealthy neighbor Laurie (Timothee Chalamet, from “Call Me by Your Name”) but is determined to be independent in her life.
Jo’s sisters are Meg (“Harry Potter” regular Emma Watson), Amy (Florence Pugh) and calm, sickly Beth (Eliza Scanlen). Their mother, the wise and stalwart Marmee, is played by Laura Dern; father, who spends most of his time away at war, is played by Bob Odenkirk.
Gerwig’s superb eye for casting includes Chris Cooper as Laurie’s lonely grandfather, Louis Garrel as a foreign professor, and Tracy Letts (he was the dad in Gerwig’s “Lady Bird”) as a skeptical publisher. And why not toss in Meryl Streep, popping up as the vinegary Aunt March?
In telling the story, Gerwig cuts between two different time periods — one with the sisters as girls coming into their own, the other seven years later, as more somber issues play out. This means that even the earliest scenes in the narrative are shaded a little with age.
The structure also helps us see that Jo’s story is not about finding a man and getting married, but about becoming a writer. The attention Gerwig pays to how a book would be published in the mid-19th century tells us everything about what she sees as important to Jo, who not only must struggle with the age-old artist’s dilemma of how to turn the mess of real life into crafted form, but how to do it as a woman in a man’s world. You get the feeling this film has been made with the same tender care as those handcrafted books.
That extends to Yorick Le Saux’s photography (New England looks authentic, without pausing for postcard views) and Alexandre Desplat’s soulful music.
The actors, especially, create an authentic sense of camaraderie — Gerwig gets lively energy going without violating the period setting. Ronan leads the way with her customary fierce determination, and the rail-thin Chalamet does a deft job of suggesting a bright, fun young fellow who is maybe not the man of Jo’s dreams.
The film’s most flagrant scene-stealer is pug-faced Florence Pugh, the star of “Lady Macbeth” and “Midsommar,” a willful and funny presence. This is one “Little Women” where you’re as curious about Amy as you are about Jo.
What’s definitely modern about this version is Gerwig’s let’s-get-on-with-it pace, which could maybe use a breather or two for atmosphere. But generally, this is an interesting take on unbeatable material, a portrait of the artist as a young woman.
“Little Women” (3½ stars)
The Louisa May Alcott novel gets another adaptation, as writer-director Greta Gerwig emphasizes Jo (the peerless Saorise Ronan) and her development as a writer. The movie gives a splendid showcase to a wonderful cast, including Timothee Chalamet, Emma Watson and the scene-stealing Florence Pugh.
Rating: PG, for subject matter
Showing: Alderwood, Alderwood Mall, Everett Stadium, Galaxy Monroe, Meridian, Oak Tree, Pacific Place, Woodinville, Cascade Mall