Fresh off "Lady Bird" (2017), a wonderful movie about a young writer leaving home, the writer-director Greta Gerwig has made another wonderful movie about a young writer leaving home, although she ends up there.
Gerwig has taken on Louisa May Alcott's "Little Women," which she begins with a title card featuring Alcott's own words: "I had lots of troubles, so I write jolly tales."
With an established and frequently adapted classic, it's useful to tip your hand and let the audience know what it's in for straight away. The new film's pacing and rhythm reveals Gerwig's full-gallop approach to the four March sisters, their mother and their intertwining private lives during and after the Civil War. The way Gerwig handles them, the March family's stories are treated as a disarming comedy of manners under serious, cloudy skies. She doesn't stop there: By the end of this "Little Women," freer visually as well as narratively compared to "Lady Bird," Alcott's story and Jo March's story dovetail into a third, hybrid tale of one woman's freedom from want.
"A Very Charming Book for Girls": That's how Alcott's first volume (price: $1.50), clearly unfit for half the planet, sold itself in the October 1868 Chicago Tribune classifieds, promising something "fresh, sparkling, natural and full of soul." The many previous film versions of "Little Women" include George Cukor's 1933 deluxe edition starring Katharine Hepburn as Jo, one of her greatest early screen performances. Director Gillian Armstrong's 1994 version, better and more moving than people tend to remember, has a lot in common with Gerwig's adaptation; it's full of natural, easy-breathing ensemble work. Gerwig's comic instincts bubble to the surface more often, though, and I'm grateful she trusted them enough to give us something new, and bracing.
Gerwig begins well after the end of the war, with Jo, played with exquisite precision by "Lady Bird" star Saoirse Ronan, in New York City. She's negotiating with the condescending publisher Mr. Dashwood (a wry Tracy Letts, sporting this year's best supporting muttonchops). No spinsters allowed in his stories, he scolds her, running a pencil through large swaths of her prose. Female protagonists must be "married by the end of the story. Or dead. Either way."
Damned with faint praise, Jo and her story then go back seven years, to Concord, Mass., where all previous "Little Women" adaptations begin. With their pastor father (Bob Odenkirk) off fighting, the humble March home muddles through and soldiers on. Marmee (Laura Dern, as fine and honest here as she is in "Marriage Story") in effect runs a sort of artists' colony for her daughters: author Jo, artist Amy (Florence Pugh, a brilliant standout), pianist Beth (Eliza Scanlen) and the eldest sister, Meg (Emma Watson), who dreams of the stage.
The class divide locates the Marches on one side, and their wealthy, grieving neighbor Mr. Laurence (Chris Cooper) on the other. The latter's dashing grandson "Laurie" is played by Timothee Chalamet, like Ronan and Letts an alum of "Lady Bird." His slow-motion, tousled-hair introduction in "Little Women" brakes right at the edge of parody, while ensuring a new generation of instantly broken hearts.
For those new to the romantic machinations of "Little Women," let's merely say that Laurie becomes the oscillating object of desire for more than one March. The war, off-screen, grinds on; the family nervously awaits the return of the father; one of the girls succumbs to death. Even more tragically to some readers, Jo in Alcott's original text succumbs to a baldly contrived marital wrap-up with an older, stiffer, respectable pill. In Gerwig's version, he becomes a much younger and more Jo-worthy professor and literary critic played by Louis Garrel.
In all film versions of "Little Women," this one especially, there's a "You Can't Take It With You" element to the bohemian household of eccentric artists at work and play. The top-flight cinematographer Yorick Le Saux chases after the swirl of activity with a masterly eye for natural light, or light faked to look that way. Gerwig's hardly the first contemporary director to take on a 19th century literary favorite with an eye toward fluidity; Ang Lee's "Sense and Sensibility" (1995) relished its cinematic sweep, and Joe Wright's lovely take on another Jane Austen novel, "Pride & Prejudice" (2005), dove headlong into elaborate long takes and choreographed lines of action. In Gerwig's film, the Civil War-era sequences move quickly, with a lot of short scenes, while the postwar storyline becomes calmer and more stately.
It takes a little while to get the hang of it. Gerwig's adaptation lays out a challenging interweave of adult Jo's development as a writer, set in counterpoint to her exhilarating blur of a life several years earlier -- full of love, longing, tragedy and artistic ferment. Now and then the story compass takes a moment to establish direction. These aren't serious flaws, though. They're more like imaginative hurdles Gerwig and her inspired collaborators have set up for themselves. The idea is to make Jo's advancement in the world live and breathe in the present; the present just happens to be the 1860s, a time when women had precious little legal or societal currency.