Little Women has come a long way: Louisa May Alcott’s 1868 novel about the loves and ambitions of the young March sisters has been filmed more than a dozen times for cinema and TV, starting with a silent version before the book was half a century old. In her zesty adaptation, Greta Gerwig develops ingeniously the theme of women finding their voices. Even a perversely gloopy score by Alexandre Desplat can’t drown them out.
Gerwig’s decision to zip back and forth in time corrects the shortcomings of previous versions, which always seemed to lose momentum after the death of one of the main characters. This latest take begins with Jo (Saoirse Ronan), a budding novelist, submitting a story to a newspaper. The movie then zigzags between different stages in the Massachusetts adolescence of Jo and her sisters Amy (Florence Pugh), Meg (Emma Watson) and Beth (Eliza Scanlen), watched over by their mother, Marmee (Laura Dern). This structural revision teases out telling contrasts (a carefree afternoon at the beach is juxtaposed with a return to the setting during unhappier circumstances) and underlines bitter ironies: a scene in which the Marches’ adored and adoring neighbour Laurie (Timothée Chalamet) looks on stoically as Amy swans off with another man is followed by a rueful flashback to the day when he introduced them to one another.
Though the sisters have been raised to value themselves, their struggle is to be heard and understood in a world in which emotional choices, such as whom to marry and when, are inseparable from economic ones. Discouragement comes from a prim aunt (Meryl Streep) who wields her wealth like a cosh, and from the girls’ own insecurities and fears. The film is littered with images of words unheard: stories burned out of shame or spite, a confession of love cast into the river. Gerwig’s beginnings in “mumblecore”, that pocket of no-budget US indie film-making devoted to tales of shambolic or unrequited love, serve her well here, and she imports some of that genre’s twitchy emotional restlessness to undercut Yorick Le Saux’s striking cinematography. Even among a blazing autumnal landscape of scorched reds and oranges, there is someone experiencing their own winter of the heart.
There is the odd weak link in the cast – when Watson delivers the line, “I can’t be an actress”, it’s tempting to call back, “You’re not.” Most of the performances, though, are beautifully modulated: Pugh brings infinite varieties of heartbreak to Amy’s rivalry with Jo, while Ronan losing composure in the face of criticism is a cringing delight. For all the virtues of the little women, the standout is Chalamet, that human Slinky who can turn the simplest movement into a miniature punk ballet. Let’s hear it for the little man.
In cinemas from 26 December
Little Women (U)
dir: Greta Gerwig