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Left to right: Emma Watson, Florence Pugh, Saoirse Ronan and Eliza Scanlen in Little Women.

Wilson Webb/Sony Pictures

  • Little Women
  • Directed by Greta Gerwig
  • Written by Greta Gerwig, based on the novel by Louisa May Alcott
  • Starring Saoirse Ronan, Florence Pugh and Emma Watson
  • Classification PG
  • 134 minutes

rating

4 out of 4 stars

It is sublime. Better than Lady Bird even, and I would not, could not, say that lightly. Because it hits harder. Like someone ripping your heart out, while gently rubbing your back and telling you that it’s all going to be okay. I laughed obnoxiously loud, and I cried so hard my face formed a frozen death mask that just went, “Owww, myyyyy hearrrrttttt.”

Because when it’s all over – after the March sisters go to the ball and share a dozen Christmases; after their countless bickerings and standoffs and marriage proposals; after Laurie falls in love with two sisters and ends up with the only one who will have him; when poor Beth lives, and when poor Beth dies; just after a young woman’s life of so many beauties and indignities, okay? – and our heroine is last seen triumphantly clutching her own novel, comes the bruising recognition I always feel after any Greta Gerwig movie. It makes me speechless: the shock of seeing your actual selfhood and desires, the ones that cinema always taught you to incubate in private, blazing up there in full living colour on the screen. After seven movie adaptations over a century, this particular Little Women is almost too much to bear.

Holiday movie guide: Reviews of films opening through the end of December

Saoirse Ronan and Timothee Chalamet make Louisa May Alcott's dialogue bristle and ache.

Wilson Webb/Sony Pictures

Needless to say, Gerwig’s second feature – a breathlessly modern, urgent adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s 1868 novel with a cast of Saoirse Ronan (Jo), Florence Pugh (Amy), Emma Watson (Meg) and Eliza Scanlen (Beth) playing the March sisters – lives up to the mammoth expectations placed upon the actor-turned-auteur. As the dust settles on the cursed decade that was the 2010s, Gerwig is one of the few female filmmakers (along with Sofia Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow) to become an Oscar-nominated household name. Christened a muse in her early collaborations with Joe Swanberg and Noah Baumbach, she was always a director. She became an author in Greenberg, the first time she took off her leather jacket, with a long embarrassed shrug that apologized in advance for her existence.

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Little Women was Gerwig’s passion project – a writing assignment that she begged producer Amy Pascal to let her do pre-Lady Bird that became a studio flagship after the success of her first feature. It’s well crafted and gorgeous, shot on film with Renoir-like framing, lavish production design and elegant costumes, a cheery score by Alexandre Desplat and an eminently GIF-able cameo by Meryl Streep. All these prestigious production values heap more Chantilly cream onto Gerwig’s confectionery trifle of a picture, but soaking through the layers is something more acrid and bittersweet: a powerful examination of the lives most women never get to live.

Gerwig’s screenplay devises a radical deconstruction of its source material. We first see the March sisters as adults, then children, then adolescents, as an increasingly achronological timeline flits between their past, present and future, comparing and contrasting the key events that sum up their characters and set their destinies in motion. It weighs on you, seeing the raw material of Jo March’s life that will become her novel, reminding me of a passage in Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts: “The pleasure of recognizing that one may have to undergo the same realizations, write the same notes in the margin, return to the same themes in one’s work, relearn the same emotional truths, write the same book over and over again – not because one is stupid or obstinate or incapable of change, but because such revisitations constitute a life.”

Meryl Streep provides an eminently GIF-able cameo.

Wilson Webb/Sony Pictures

Gerwig understands the indignity of being born a girl just as well as her author did. It is the deep pain of wanting to be chosen; your vanity, the shame of that vanity; how to suffer the consequences of pursuing both love and art, knowing full well that only one will keep you fed. About 80 per cent of the dialogue is Alcott’s, and it has never sounded more relevant than it does from the mouths of Ronan and Timothée Chalamet (Laurie), who know how to make it bristle and ache. It resounds in that particular Gerwigian way, like twisted aphorisms cracked open from a fortune cookie (“Just because my dreams are different than yours doesn’t mean they’re unimportant,” Meg contends to her sister), casually tossed off by young people who fervently long for a life well outside their station.

Most importantly, the film also sets a redemption arc for the Amy character, fiercely played by Pugh. (She could power the eastern seaboard with her charisma.) Amy is a sociopath, but she’s our sociopath. Prior editions have never understood her as anything more than a foil for the boisterous Jo, but she is her sister’s ambitious shadow self, who also wants more than she deserves. In a splendid monologue, which will probably air one day in Pugh’s lifetime-achievement award reel, she outlines calmly, with the precision of a serial killer, why women must hitch their star to a man to survive, even if they desire to be great themselves. If Amy can’t be a genius, she’ll just have to get married.

Jo will always be a great heroine – a contented spinster for whom life alone as a writer can be enough, glorious even. Gerwig’s smart, subversive ending will satisfy the audience, but make them question why a single woman’s journey never feels complete without a kiss in the rain. In fact, a scene with Ronan crouching down, tending to the pages of her novel in an attic lit aglow by candles, is one of the most romantic images of the year. The cinema of 2019 has been defined by Boomer machismo (Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood, Ford v Ferrari, The Irishman, Joker), and I’m tired of seeing men laughing because they’re too afraid to cry. It could be easy to trivialize the relatively privileged lives of Little Women. But Little Women isn’t just for girls; it’s for everyone.

Little Women opens on Dec. 25

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