“Women have minds and souls as well as hearts,” Jo March (Saoirse Ronan) says to her mother (Laura Dern). “They’ve got ambition and talent as well as beauty.” Jo writes short stories published in the local paper. She wants to write novels. “And,” she says, “I’m sick of people saying that love is all a woman is fit for.” She has just said “No” to a marriage proposal from wealthy Theodore “Laurie” Laurence (Timothee Chalamet) who lives next door. “I’m so sick of it,” she says, “but — I’m so lonely!”
That’s the setup for this first rate adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s classic “Little Women,” set in mid-19th century. Will Jo write her novel? Will it be published? Will she find a husband? Will you love this movie? I do.
Cast members, without exception, are excellent. At the center, the four March sisters: eldest, talented and unstoppable writer, Jo (Saoirse Ronan); artistic, passionate and youngest, Amy (Florence Pugh); quiet, thoughtful, Meg (Emma Watson); and delicate pianist, Beth (Eliza Scanlen). Laura Dern is mother March. “Just call me ‘Marmee,’ everyone does,” she says. Bob Odenkirk is absent father March, fighting for the Union in the Civil War. Young, handsome neighbor, “Laurie” — Theodore Laurence (Timothee Chalamet) — lives with his rich and kindly grandfather, played by Chris Cooper. Meryl Streep is acerbic, unmarried Aunt March, who tells Meg, her just-married niece, “I hope you will be happy after ruining your life like your mother did when she married your father.”
Others in the large cast include Louis Garrel as tutor Friedrich Bhaer. He gives Jo books by Shakespeare. Tracy Letts is publisher Mr. Dashwood, who bargains with Jo over copyrights and royalties. James Norton plays John Brooke, Meg’s husband.
Directed and written by Greta Gerwig, this latest of four “Little Women” film adaptations is, according to The Wall Street Journal, the year’s best picture. In Gerwig’s smart adaptation, the four sisters are introduced as adults: Jo, writing in New York City; Amy, traveling with Aunt March in Europe; Meg, shopping for fabric she’ll use in her sewing; and Beth, at the piano, a gift from Mr. Laurence. Then, in extended flashback, we’re seven years earlier, when the girls are still at home. Their coming-of-age stories unfold in fragmented flashbacks and flash-forwards, sometimes confusing, but always compelling. (Saoirse Ronan is the best Jo since Katherine Hepburn in 1933.)
Rated PG for themes and smoking, “Little Women” runs 134 minutes. It’s a keeper.
Amy, Beth, Meg and Jo,
See them all when you go;
“Little Women” — that’s the show;
See them soon; don’t say “No.”