Writer-director Greta Gerwig zooms straight into the awards race with her stunning adaptation of Louisa May Alcott's classic coming-of-age novel, Little Women, first published in 1868. Perennially popular, the book has seen multiple big screen adaptations throughout the years (the most recent being Gillian Armstrong's 1994 version with Winona Ryder in the lead), but it's safe to say that Gerwig has created a near definitive version here, an instant classic that will stand the test of time, regardless of whether or not it cleans up come Oscar time.
Set in the years during and after the American Civil War, the story centres on the four March sisters: aspiring author Jo (Saoirse Ronan), impulsive, fiery Amy (Florence Pugh), sensible elder sister Meg (Emma Watson) and sweet-natured younger sister Beth (Eliza Scanlen).
Looked after by their mother, Marmee (Laura Dern) while their father (Bob Odenkirk) is off acting as a chaplain in the war, the girls gradually mature and begin making their own way in life: Jo heads to New York to begin a writing career, Amy accompanies their aunt (Meryl Streep) to Paris and tries to become an artist, Meg marries equally sensible schoolteacher John Brooke (James Norton) and Beth develops a friendship with widowed neighbour Mr Laurence (Chris Cooper) after he invites her to practise on the unplayed piano in his house.
At the same time, a romantic triangle of sorts develops between Jo, Amy and Mr Laurence's charming, floppy-haired nephew Laurie (Timothée Chalamet). Growing up, Laurie and Jo are inseparable and Amy is deeply jealous, but when Jo rejects his proposal, Amy and Laurie become close after meeting up in Paris.
Gerwig's master-stroke is to make changes to the traditional chronology, using a loose flashback structure so that we can clearly see how Jo and her sisters' childhood and teenage experiences inform and shape the writing of her novel. That has an inspired pay-off at the end of the film, since Jo continually receives advice from her publisher (Tracy Letts) on how to end her book, along the lines of, “If the main character’s a girl, make sure she’s married by the end. Or dead, either way.”
In addition, Gerwig's assured direction gives the film a freshness and modernity that feels entirely appropriate for 2019, without ever resorting to anachronisms or straying from the period setting in any way. As a follow-up to her striking debut Lady Bird (which also starred Ronan), it's a remarkable achievement that confirms Gerwig has a real voice.
Gerwig has cast the film to perfection and the performances are exceptional. Ronan is simply terrific as Jo, generating touching chemistry with each of her co-stars and imbuing the character with a fierce drive for independence that's both thrilling and inspirational. Similarly, Pugh is wonderful as Amy, bringing nuance, humour and unexpected sympathy to what's always considered the more difficult role (in that Amy is basically a petulant brat, at least for the first half of the story).
As the older and younger sisters, Watson gives perhaps her best post-Potter performance as Meg, slowly adjusting to the less romantic realities of married life, while Scanlen is quietly heart-breaking as Beth – the sensitive development of her relationship with Cooper's Mr Laurence is just one of the multiple pleasures on offer here.
Chalamet, for his part, proves inspired casting for Laurie, effortlessly playful and romantic in the early scenes and convincingly dissolute and melancholy in the Paris sequences. The proposal scene is also beautifully handled by all concerned, pitched in a way that the audience knows Jo is making the right decision, even if they're perfect for each other.
On a similar note, there are a number of powerfully moving scenes in the book that have seared themselves into the collective memory (Amy's devastating revenge against Jo, an incident on an ice pond, one character's eventual fate, etc) and Gerwig does justice to each one in turn.
The film is further heightened by some impeccable costume design work (giving everyone a slightly lighter, less restrictive feel than the traditional corsets and petticoats one associates with period drama) as well as painterly cinematography from Yorick Le Saux and a splendid score from Alexandre Desplat.
By turns heart-warming, laugh-out-loud funny and powerfully emotional, this is a simply stunning second feature from Gerwig and it will be fascinating to see what she does next. Unmissable and one of the best films of the year.