Little Women

Little Women ★★★★★

This has passages about as good as anything I’ve ever seen on the screen, with Ronan a mesmerising, indelible and definitive Jo. Not all of the film is quite that effective: while the decision to make Laurie an arsehole – sorry, ‘troubled’ – is interesting, it doesn’t always work, perhaps because Chalamet’s performance is all over the shop, sensitive and almost mercurial one moment, wooden the next.

There are other changes too: the film makes the story's subtexts more overt, meaning that for the first time Amy's mercenary instincts aren't just about vanity and greed, but survival and even selflessness, rendering her sympathetic. Jo also has a deeply beautiful, feminist speech, in keeping with her character's non-conformity, in the attic near the close ("Women have minds, and they have souls, as well as just hearts"). And Professor Bhaer (Louis Garrel) becomes more of an immigrant, and younger, with a sexual charisma that has little to do with the book, but is often missing when we're dealing (however good-naturedly) with 'the other'.

The bit of progressive speechifying that falls completely on its arse is a perhaps purposefully inflammatory line given to an unnamed black character, who tells a sympathetic Marmee, "I'm still not proud of this country". The sentiment is fine, but the moment seems clunkingly incongruous in this context: you can interrogate the present day through your interpretation of the period text, but you can't just throw in contemporary observations at random, with no thought to historical truth.

One of Gerwig's most interesting innovations is a time-slip structure, which succeeds both in accentuating the film's more moving moments (particularly Beth's illness), underscoring the almost circular nature of the characters' experiences and the subtle parallels between different episodes, and particularly highlighting the idyll that is their childhood. "Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards," Kierkegaard wrote, and it is only when you know what heartbreak is coming to these characters that you truly realise what they have lost. No other version of the story begins near the end, and so none other shows you time's acts of bitter thievery, or the foreign country that these characters – particularly Jo – are striving to regain.

Before this film, I could think of only two stories which have produced three truly great, stand-alone adaptations: A Star Is Born ('37, '54, '18) and this one ('33, '49 and '94). Little Women is now out in front and, though time will tell, I think this is likely to overtake the faintly corny but overwhelmingly affecting '40s MGM version as the one I think of – and reach for – first. It has the finest Jo (better than Ryder, than Kate Hepburn, even Allyson), easily the best Amy (Florence Pugh), aided by an intelligent reimagining of the character, and a pretty good Meg in Emma Watson – who has happily graduated from being shit in everything.

The supporting cast are mostly quite good too, particularly Chris Cooper as a well-rounded Mr Laurence, and Streep as Aunt March, who's fairly funny and has one brilliant moment in her two-handed indoor scene with Ronan. I think it's the first time Streep has done anything that truly makes you feel since about 1982, so it's nice to have her back with us. Even aside from Chalamet, though, the talent can't always compete with past iterations: Eliza Scanlen is pretty good but no Margaret O'Brien (then again, who is?), Laura Dern is inferior to Astor and Sarandon as Marmee, and James Norton remains a fantastic jawline in search of a fantastic actor.

I presume Gerwig has seen at least one earlier version, as she sets up the letter-reading scene in an almost exact configuration of the tableau in LeRoy's 1949 adaptation, but otherwise it's her own vision, on paper and screen: the subtle POV shots that draw you into the story are so perfectly-conceived, subtle and effective, and the film is filled with wonderful, often desperately moving little moments. Most of them centre on Ronan (the attic scene, the sprint downstairs, the sequence of her alone with Beth on the beach), though a mention too for Amy's refusal of Laurie in Paris, which has such a clarity of theme and purpose.

It isn't a perfect film, but beneath Desplat's overly conventional score, away from those performances that dwell in the shadow of past triumphs, those early lines uttered unnaturally to oneself, there are passages of extraordinary intelligence, sincerity and sensitivity that happily confirm Gerwig-Ronan as the most exciting actor-director partnership in aeons. I'm northern and into football and stuff, but I just kept crying.

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