By Leah Greenblatt
November 25, 2019 at 12:00 PM EST
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Does the world really need another Little Women? Dozens of stage and screen adaptations of Louisa May Alcott’s beloved novel would probably say no; actress-auteur Greta Gerwig begs to disagree. And bless, for the most part, that she did: Her 2019 take is less a faithful rendering of the text than a sort of joyful reimaging, a classic cleared of cobwebs (though it still keeps the crinolines).

The story plunges without preamble into the New York life of aspiring writer Jo (Gerwig’s Lady Bird muse Saoirse Ronan) scraping by in a local boarding house and attempting to sell her swashbuckling adventure tales to a skeptical publisher (Tracy Letts).

For fans of the novel, the characters that soon appear in flashbacks are more than familiar — they feel like family: Meg (Emma Watson), the gentle, well-behaved eldest March sister; sweet homebody Beth (Eliza Scanlen); vain little dreamer Amy (Florence Pugh); and their saintly, eternally patient mother Marmee (Laura Dern).

While the March patriarch (Bob Odenkirk) is off fighting the Civil War, the surrogate men in the girls’ lives become their wealthy, stiff-lipped neighbor (Chris Cooper), his restless grandson Theodore “Laurie” Laurence (Timothée Chalamet), and Laurie’s impossibly square-jawed tutor John Brooke (James Norton).

Wilson Webb/Columbia Pictures

It’s hard to know how non-readers of the novel will take in most of what follows, because Gerwig’s script so often presumes that her audience knows the narrative as well as she does, and are equally impatient to get to the good stuff. Many of the book’s touchstone moments — a fatefully overheated curling iron, a mislaid glove, an icy plunge in a local pond — are treated glancingly, more like incidents to be ticked off a list than lingered on.

That can make the first half feel both rushed and episodic, but as the narrative settles into its telling, the old magic of the story — and Gerwig’s vibrant, tender-hearted connection to it — take over. The look of the film itself is lovely, nearly every scene gorgeously composed and shot in soft painterly light, and the cast, from Dern’s delicately shaded Marmee to Chalamet’s lovelorn Laurie, uniformly great.

Pugh, so good in this year’s Midsommar and Fighting With My Family, brings welcome layers to her willful pigtailed Amy; Cooper, Odenkirk, and Meryl Streep, as the girls’ ornery Aunt March, duly make the most of their small turns. But it’s Ronan’s fierce, tender Jo who carries nearly every scene she’s in; a fourth Oscar nod for the Irish actress, still somehow only 25, seems both inevitable and earned.

Purists might blanche at the strenuously modern brand of feminism the movie imposes here, and the generally contemporary air that swirls over all its carriages and top hats. If Gerwig’s woke Women-hood verges on anachronism, though, it also feels fully loyal to the spirit of Alcott, a woman always well ahead of her time. And like a sort of balm too, for an era when the novel’s long-held values — courage, kindness, strength in vulnerability — still feel a lot further away than they should. A–

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