Little Women

5 stars

An ecstatic reaction to the latest adaptation of an oft-adapted novel may have an inevitable air of recency about it, but forgive the seeming hyperbole when I say that Greta Gerwig’s masterful take on Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women is now (and may as well forever be, as far as I’m concerned) the definitive screen version of this tender tale.

But it’s so much more than just the best in a long line of adaptations stretched across the better part of a century. This is a brilliant take on the material, one that stitches together the numerous pieces into an all-encompassing tapestry instead of merely attempting to squeeze as many anecdotes and plot markers into a two-hour running time.

Gerwig’s decision to start near the end and make the final leg of the story a time for reflection on the past is smart in concept and exquisite in execution. It freshens the presentation immediately, especially for anyone familiar with the novel and its previous adaptations, but this approach also allows the dramatic underpinnings of the plot to become emotionally charged by way of careful construction.

A linear examination of the events, as earlier high-profile adaptations have been, insists that the novel’s two halves, one focused on March sisters Meg (Emma Watson), Jo (Saoirse Ronan), Beth (Eliza Scanlen), and Amy (Florence Pugh) as playful children and the other a more sobering look at adult life set a few years later, be laid out side-by-side, which in turn constricts the cinematic possibilities.

The novel, consumed at the reader’s own pace, has the space to contain everything Alcott wants to say about the characters and their arcs, but a movie with a standard two-hour running time has to cherry-pick the most important aspects of the story and devote enough time to each one that the various scenes can still breathe without being overly rushed. And since Little Women has such a clear before-and-after structure, there are many pieces of the first half that must be included to make sense of later occurrences.

The March sisters have to meet their wealthy yet lonely next-door neighbour Laurie (Timothée Chalamet) and have a series of encounters with him in order to first foster his relationship with them, all so we can properly feel the impact of what will come later when Laurie proposes to Jo. And sweet, selfless Beth has to bring food and other supplies to the impoverished Hummel family so that she can later fall ill with scarlet fever, then fight back against the sickness, only to finally succumb to its effects years later.

Meg’s decision to marry for love instead of money is all the more poignant because we first learn of how greatly she craves better social standing and how eager she is to be included in the upper crust, where she has an endless supply of flowing dresses to wear and fancy parties to attend. And Jo, around whom this story revolves more than anyone else, has to grow from the writer of plays performed in her family home to the novelist she’s destined to be, all while reconciling her desire to remain unmarried with the sense of loss and loneliness that starts to encroach upon her.

This is just a small sampling of story pieces that require setting up at the beginning in order to be paid off by the end, but the main point is that a movie attending to these split pieces in a linear fashion finds itself very limited by how much of the novel it can actually include when so many key elements are deemed necessary. Gerwig’s use of memory to flesh out the past provides a more open space for the story to blossom, so the relationships become more organic, the rosy nostalgia more invigorating, and the waves of melancholy more powerful than ever before.

In particular, Beth’s death is treated so movingly here because it hangs over the entire movie. It’s not a plot point developed somewhere in the first half and later concluded, but rather a note of tragedy that is referenced in one of the very first scenes and then foreshadowed throughout, culminating with a collision of past and present, of hope and horror, that has been expertly edited for maximum effect. Beth lives and dies, all in a span of mere minutes, and the feeling that our lost loved ones are both present and gone at the same time has rarely been so perfectly realized onscreen.

At one point, Amy says “I’m not a poet,” but Gerwig is and that lyrical spirit propels her movie to towering heights. She reassembles the story with such finesse and mines the material for every opportunity to add a personal touch, which especially manifests itself beautifully in the conclusion of Jo’s journey. It’s an astonishing achievement, a movie that wholly honours its source while also being a clear extension of the filmmaker’s identity.

The cast is in peak form as well, with everyone contributing such richness to their roles. These are the greatest cinematic versions of Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy ever depicted. The characters have long lived on both page and screen, but when I think of them now, I picture Watson, Ronan, Scanlen, and Pugh, so complete are their portraits.

This is a once-in-a-lifetime adaptation and a touching ode to the act of artistic creation. Gerwig has bared her heart and soul here and left a piece of herself burned into the celluloid. When Jo proudly, passionately clutches her novel in the movie’s final shot, she is a March sister and Alcott and Gerwig all combined, generations of fact and fiction layered upon each other in a moment of unbridled joy for the time-tested truth and triumph of what these women have accomplished.