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Greta Gerwig makes ‘Little Women’ feel fresh and relevant

The writer-director’s funny, moving adaptation respects the popular novel but gives these 1860s women attitudes that seem current.

Florence Pugh (from left), Saoirse Ronan and Emma Watson play three of the March sisters in “Little Women.”
Florence Pugh (from left), Saoirse Ronan and Emma Watson play three of the March sisters in “Little Women.”
Columbia Pictures

“I intend to make my own way in the world.”

“No one makes their OWN way, least of all a woman.” — Exchange between Jo March and her aunt in “Little Women.”

If all you told me about “Little Women” was, “They’re making another version of ‘Little Women,’ I can’t pretend I would have been counting down the days on the Google Calendar.

Not that I don’t admire the material. It’s just that we’ve had a LOT of “Little Women” movies and TV adaptations, including two silent movies in the 1910s, films in 1933, 1949 and 1994, various BBC entries, a 1978 TV miniseries, etc., etc.

Ah, but if you told me the blazingly talented Greta Gerwig (“Ladybird”) would be writing and directing this adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s classic novel, and the cast would include Saoirse Ronan, Emma Watson, Florence Pugh, Laura Dern, Meryl Streep and Timothee Chalamet — well, here we go.

And now that I’ve seen and thoroughly enjoyed every frame of this fresh and unique and yet beautifully respectful take on one of the most filmed novels in motion picture history, I’m thrilled to report this is maybe the best “Little Women” yet, and it’s one of my absolute favorite movies of the year.

Through Gerwig’s wonderfully creative prism, it’s as if we’re meeting the March sisters for the very first time, and we’re immediately swept away in a gorgeously filmed, wickedly funny, deeply moving and, yes, empowering story with themes still relevant some 150 years after the time period of these events.

In the novel, the March girls range in age from 12 to 16 at the outset of the story. In Gerwig’s telling, they’re already young women at the beginning (though they’re younger in flashbacks).

When we meet Jo March (the priceless Saoirse Ronan in yet another nomination-worthy performance), she’s a talented but struggling writer who has to dumb down her stories to appease the traditional and sexist mores of the 1860s time period.

(Tracy Letts is a scene-stealer as the rigidly chauvinistic editor who is outraged at the mere notion a story could end WITHOUT the heroine finding true love. “Make it short and spicy,” he tells Jo, “and if the main character is a girl, make sure she’s married by the end.”)

Meanwhile, Emma Watson’s Meg, once an aspiring actress of some talent, is happily married with two children, but she can’t deny it would be nice if the family could afford the nicer things in life, and Florence Pugh’s Amy is living in Paris with the girls’ snooty, wealthy aunt (Meryl Streep, knocking it out of the park as you’d expect). Amy is studying art, becoming frustrated by her limitations — and finds herself drawn romantically to an old friend.

Then there’s Beth (Eliza Scanlen), who’s still at home with the girls’ mother (Laura Dern), and soon won’t be feeling well. (The girls’ father, played by Bob Odenkirk in a slightly jarring bit of casting, is off aiding the Union’s cause in the Civil War.)

Amy (Eliza Scanlen) is the one sister still at home in this version of “Little Women.”
Columbia Pictures

Ronan, Watson, Pugh and Scanlen have a remarkable, genuinely sisterly dynamic in all their scenes, from the lightest, silliest escapades to the moments of true drama. Their mannerisms and speech are not anachronistic; they seem of their times. Yet there is something current and relevant about their interactions and their attitudes.

Gerwig and the cinematographer Yorick Le Saux use contrasting palettes to distinguish the “present day” sequences from the flashbacks. The former scenes have a sharp, vibrant, natural look, while the latter are bathed in more golden tones — liked filmed memories.

The great Chris Cooper gives a heartbreakingly lovely performance as Mr. Laurence, the wealthy neighbor who has lost a daughter of his own and takes a fatherly shine to Beth. He delights when Beth visits and plays the piano, filling the cold and lonely mansion with music and warmth. Timothee Chalamet is perfectly cast as Mr. Laurence’s grandson, Laurie, a dashing and charming young man who has loved Jo since the moment he met her, but winds up with another March sister, to whom he is better suited.

One of the last movies of 2019 is destined to become one of the truly lasting movies of 2019.