Here, at last, are screen versions of the Little Women I’ve had in my head since I read the book when I was eight. Headstrong, unconventional Jo, born to write and desperate for a bigger life; romantic Meg, yearning for riches but choosing (relative) impoverishment with her one true love; shy, saintly, not-long-for-this-world Beth; and Amy, little Amy, all drive and ambition, always trying to impress (or beat) Jo.
I grew up with these girls, and every adaptation I’ve seen has failed to realise them convincingly. Except Jo, of course; there are lots of lovely screen-Jos (Katherine Hepburn, June Allyson, Winona Ryder). She’s the most captivating character, the Lizzie Bennett: it’s easy for a good actor to capture her spirit. But her movie sisters have always been a disappointment to me, even when played by talented performers. They’ve never felt right. Until now.
Saoirse Ronan makes a marvellous Jo (of course she does); Emma Watson perfectly embodies Meg’s earnest longing; Eliza Scanlen imbues Beth with strength as well as a sweet nature. But it’s Florence Pugh’s pugnacious, jealous Amy that has me almost exclaiming with delight. Here she is: a proud and lively girl, both friend and rival to her big sister Jo. She’s bloody brilliant.
Writer-director Greta Gerwig shows us once again how talented she is: this is Little Women writ large, barely deviating from the source material, but bringing contemporary resonances to the fore. There’s less piety and sermonising here than there is in Alcott’s novel, and the chronology is disrupted, so that we first meet Jo as an already published, ambitious woman, negotiating the terms for her latest stories while working in New York. The girls’ childhood is shown through a series of flashbacks, and we flit back and forth in time, never confused, even though the same actors perform throughout, ageing ten years through hairstyles, clothing, poise and gait. This structure gives prominence to the women the girls become, contrasting their childhood aspirations with what they actually achieve.
There’s such vivacity and energy here, it’s impossible not to be charmed; Gerwig has captured the very heart of Alcott’s fictionalised autobiography. The story arc actually works better in the film, and the audacious ending is a genuine master-stroke.
Timothée Chalamet is an inspired choice for Laurie, depicting with ease the neighbour’s loneliness and need for love, as well as his playful decadence. Laura Dern makes an excellent Marmee, and who else but Meryl Streep could have played Aunt March to Ronan’s Jo?
I have a couple of quibbles. I don’t know why middle-aged, paunchy, German Professor Bhaer is replaced with a young, handsome Frenchman (Louis Garrel); why shouldn’t Jo establish a less conventional friendship? And I would like to see more of Meg: her character is well-established, but her storylines are too truncated, I think.
But honestly, these are just tiny niggles. This movie makes me really happy; indeed, the last ten minutes have me grinning so widely I actually hurt my face. Bravo! A fabulous film to end the year.