Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women didn’t really need to be “solved”—it’s a landmark achievement as is—but writer-director Greta Gerwig’s adaptation adjusts things in a way that even the book’s most ardent admirers might concede to be, if not exactly improvements, helpful tweaks.
Basically, this Little Women manages a way around the Laurie conundrum. (Spoilers ahead.) Set in a small Massachusetts town during the Civil War, Alcott’s story centers on the four March sisters: Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy. The imaginative, irreverent, and “tomboyish” Jo (the Alcott stand-in) comes to the fore, as does her spirited friendship with Laurie, the wealthy boy who lives next door. As they grow older and romance becomes a more dominant theme of the novel, their marital pairing seems inevitable. Yet Alcott had something different in mind.
For many readers, it was possible to admire Alcott’s bravery in not doing the obvious, while not entirely buying the way she carried it off: by introducing another potential suitor for Jo—an older professor, Friedrich Bhaer—near the end of the novel. It’s always felt to me and many others like romance ex machina.
Gerwig’s approach? Tell Alcott’s linear story in a nonlinear way. Little Women opens with scenes from the end of the book, so that we simultaneously meet Bhaer (Louis Garrel, younger and far more handsome than most screen interpretations) and Laurie (Timothee Chalamet, with plenty of youth and charm of his own). The film then jumps back to seven years earlier, though it will continue to move about freely in time.
This isn’t the only modern touch that Gerwig brings. Although cinematographer Yorick Le Saux and production designer Jess Gonchor mostly employ a cozy, Christmas-card aesthetic, there are a few delicate uses of slow motion to keep the screen from becoming too staid. In addition, a wonderful scene of Jo and Laurie ironically dancing outside on a porch, lightly mocking the gentlemen and debutantes twirling about at the ball inside, plays exactly like the snarky antics of two teens in 2019. Even the way the actors deliver their period vernacular—“Capital!”—is given a contemporary air; it sounds as if the words are being shouted in a YouTube video rather than pulled from the pages of a 151-year-old book.
Ably mixing past and present sensibilities is no easy feat, but every person in Gerwig’s ensemble cast manages it. In the main role of Jo, Saoirse Ronan (so good in Gerwig’s Lady Bird) manages to be an iconoclast without becoming a stuffy symbol. When she says, “I can’t get over my disappointment at being a girl,” the anger fuming alongside her exasperation makes it clear she really means she can’t get over her disappointment at society’s limited views of what it means to be a girl. Even better is Florence Pugh as Amy, the youngest March sister; she brings expert comic timing and a sense of maturity to the character that, quite frankly, didn’t always register on the page. Also very funny is Chalamet; sure, he’s a heartthrob, but I was more impressed by the Chaplinesque sense of physical comedy he brought to the early scenes of Laurie and Jo as rambunctious young friends.
Gerwig’s non-linear approach really pays off with the movie’s triumphant finale, in which some nimble maneuvering allows the film to equate Jo’s professional success as an aspiring fiction writer with her amorous reward in real life. While arguing with her editor over whether or not the heroine she’s written should get married at the end of her story, he tells her, “It’s romance.” Her response? “It’s mercenary.” Gerwig’s Little Women delightfully manages to be both things, in the very best way.