Walking out of Little Women, it’s hard to think that a more perfect adaptation of an already perfect novel exists. Sense and Sensibility (1995) and The Age of Innocence (1993) perhaps come close, but neither attempts to, as writer-director Greta Gerwig does here, alter the structure of their sources as revisionary, in a way that draws out the modern contexts and political radicalism of Louisa May Alcott’s tales of growing up in Civil War-era Massachusetts.
Gerwig goes all-out by starting her film towards the end of the novel’s chronology when the girls are grown up, and cutting back and forth to their childhood escapades. With tactile energy, time is delineated through closeups of hands or objects rather than grand establishing shots. Little Women zips breathlessly across the small episodes with a frenetic pace to rival The Irishman. There’s no fade in or out; timeframes colliding unexpectedly, so within a 10-minute section you might take in a death, a marriage, someone going away or coming back home.
What keeps this from Malickian introversion is the delicate balancing of the cast. Each perspective is put across with visual and verbal clarity, without the need for exposition. A sprinkling of Meryl Streep as wicked Aunt Marge adds the right amount of spice, while Laura Dern’s empathetic Marmie is the polar opposite of her girlboss turn in Marriage Story. All four small ladies are fabulous, from the way Saoirse Ronan plays off a perfectly cast Chalamet, to Florence Pugh continuing to be the most exciting actor of the minute with the sheer breadth of her arc here.
Towards the end, the timelines converge in ways that lift the story out of mere fiction and begin to question the limits of storytelling, whose story this really is, and the veracity of narrative perspective at play. This isn’t just an adaptation of Little Women, it’s the Louisa May Alcott story too.
CAST: Saoirse Ronan, Emma Watson, Timothée Chalamet, Florence Pugh, Laura Dern
DIRECTOR: Greta Gerwig
WRITERS: Greta Gerwig (screenplay), Louisa May Alcott (novel)
SYNOPSIS: Four sisters come of age in America in the aftermath of the Civil War.