As opening lines go, Louisa M Allcott’s Little Women is up there alongside “Tonight I dreamed I went to Manderley again” and “The past is a foreign country – they do things differently there.” But Greta Gerwig makes us wait a full half hour in her version of this classic before the familiar “Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents”, by which time we’ve already worked out that, while she isn’t going to follow all the conventions that go with the March sisters coming of age, she’s not going to upset the apple cart either.
The essential story remains the same. The four sisters – Meg (Emma Watson), Jo (Saoirse Ronan), Beth (Eliza Scanlen) and Amy (Florence Pugh) – are in their teens during the American Civil War and grow into young women, going their own individual ways, some fulfilling their dreams, others taking different paths. Intelligent and spirited, they each have distinct talents and different personalities: Meg is the sensible one with a love of acting, Jo the outspoken, independent tomboy with a talent for writing, quiet and gentle Beth adores music, and artistic Amy is beautiful but more than a little spoilt. But, above all, they are sisters, kept close under the protection of their loving mother Marmee (Laura Dern), and they are women, whose stories so often went untold in the 19th century.
Blending classic and contemporary with consummate skill, Little Women opens with a textbook framed shot of Ronan filmed from behind, and then takes us on the sisters’ separate journeys, leading us back to where we started, that very same shot but now focussing on her face. But instead of following the book’s linear narrative, Gerwig places more emphasis on the sisters’ lives in their 20s and uses that as the starting point, seamlessly moving backwards and forwards in time. She also demonstrates a striking ability to create a telling sequence without a solitary syllable of dialogue. The moments leading up to a pivotal scene and its devastating impact have no words, just Alexandre Desplat’s delicate score. It will break your heart. And it won’t be the only moment to do that.
But it’s also a film that glows. With the warmth of its candlelight and firelight palette. With Yorick Lesaux’s stunning photography, including moments that appear to have leapt straight from an artist’s canvas to the big screen. And with a beautifully crafted script delivered by an excellent cast, retaining the essence of an established and favourite story but making it pertinent and relevant at the same time. This applies especially to Saoirse Ronan, who is as immaculate as ever: anybody who feels they don’t fit in will completely identify with her Jo. She is, however, matched by Florence Pugh as Amy, who is frustrating in her selfishness yet matures the most visibly before our eyes and is easy to forgive. There’s secure, experienced hands in support: Laura Dern as Marmee, loving mother on the outside, would-be rebel on the inside, Meryl Streep’s traditionally minded Aunt March and a be-whiskered Tracy Letts as the publisher who nearly lets a great business opportunity slip through his fingers.
In the hands of Greta Gerwig, this Little Women pulls off what could have been seen as the near-impossible. Taking a story that we think we know – this is the fifth film version and numerous TV adaptations make it feel like it’s never far from our screens – and giving us both what we hope for and a refreshing, 21st century approach. That she does it all so perfectly is nothing short of miraculous.
Little Women is on general release on Boxing Day, Wednesday 26 December 2019.