‘Little Women’ Film Review: Greta Gerwig Puts a New Spin on a Beloved Tale

New adaptation captures Louisa May Alcott’s sentimentality and her feminism with exquisite craftsmanship

Little Women
"Little Women" / Wilson Webb/Columbia Pictures

We have all, by this point in history, seen multiple adaptations of Louisa May Alcott’s “Little Women,” but we have never seen one quite like writer-director Greta Gerwig’s moving and meaningful 2019 version.

This isn’t a radical rethinking of the “Hamlet”-staged-on-Mars school, but Gerwig makes decisions throughout that enhance the story, from juggling the timeline and giving certain characters more presence in the spotlight to the thoughtful craftsmanship employed throughout. From the uniformly excellent performances of a talented ensemble to the just-right choices in scoring, art direction, costuming and editing, this is a stunning interpretation.

I still revere the 1994 adaptation (directed by Gillian Armstrong and starring Winona Ryder as Jo), and I have great fondness for the 1933 (George Cukor-Katharine Hepburn) and 1949 (Mervyn LeRoy-June Allyson) versions as well, but Gerwig takes a gamble here that pays off brilliantly.

“Little Women” has always been its own origin story, an autobiographical novel by Alcott that captures her own life experiences growing up in Civil War-era Massachusetts, so it’s fitting that Gerwig tells the story in flashback. The film opens with an adult Jo (Saoirse Ronan) living in New York City, working as a governess and selling her anonymous pulp stories to a magazine. (Her elation upon selling a tale leads her to sprint through the streets of late-19th century Manhattan in a manner not unlike Gerwig’s elated dash in “Frances Ha.”)

Prompted by her friend Friedrich (Louis Garrel) to write about her own experiences rather than spin yarns about pirates and ghosts, Jo thinks back to her childhood in Massachusetts, with her loving Marmee (Laura Dern) and sisters Meg (Emma Watson), Amy (Florence Pugh) and Beth (Eliza Scanlen, “Babyteeth,” “Sharp Objects”). Their father (Bob Odenkirk) is away at war, and Jo feverishly writes florid melodramas for her sisters to perform when she’s not earning money working as a companion to crotchety old Aunt March (Meryl Streep).

A key outside figure in the girls’ lives arrives in the form of next-door neighbor Laurie (Timothée Chalamet), who joins their inner circle; Laurie’s grandfather Mr. Laurence (Chris Cooper) befriends shy, sickly Beth, while Meg falls for Laurie’s tutor, John Brooke (James Norton, “Grantchester”). But then, you already know this story. What matters is the way that Gerwig tells it; most adaptations tend to focus on Jo to the exclusion of the other characters, but this time around, we get to know Amy, Meg and even Beth a little more than usual, which results in the third-act romantic pairings making more sense and feeling more organic than they have in other versions.

Laurie’s eventual choice of wife, for example, can sometimes play like an afterthought, but Gerwig takes the time to present the moments that build that relationship. Even with the change in the narrative, the film remains true to its source material and features the moments we have come to expect and love in a “Little Women” movie — the March sisters gathering around Marmee as she reads a letter from their father, Jo’s occasional ineptitude involving curling irons and fireplaces, Amy’s impulsive act of vindictiveness toward one of her sisters, and so on.

The screenplay also finds the occasional moments, as does Alcott’s novel, to underscore the era’s attitudes towards women and their options regarding marriage, work and finances. Gerwig is too subtle and too talented to become a polemicist in these scenes; they are organic and necessary observations, and the film allows them to land gently, without a clang.

Gerwig also adds the sense of a lived-in world; from Jo’s run through the city to Amy and Aunt March taking a carriage ride through a crowded Paris park to a beach outing for the March family, this is an adaptation that remains cozy but still breaks out of parlors and attics to exist in wide-open spaces, all of which cinematographer Yorick Le Saux (“High Life”) captures as warm and welcoming. Alexandre Desplat offers one of his best scores in recent memory, enhancing the joys and sorrows of the characters without sending the audience telegrams about how to feel in each scene.

“Lady Bird” showed Gerwig to be a director who can summon memorable performances from the largest roles all the way down, and those gifts are apparent in “Little Women” as well. Pugh and Chalamet may be the standouts in an impressive cast, but there’s not a single artificial moment from any of the players.

The various “Little Women” films have become Christmas favorites over the years, with so many key plot moments taking place on Dec. 25, and this one will certainly join their ranks in that regard. But in an era in which sentimentality is a seasoning that filmmakers either shun entirely or employ with too heavy a hand,  Gerwig crafts a work about love and family and devotion and empathy that is moving without being manipulative. This is a “Little Women” for the ages.