DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. Writer-director Greta Gerwig reunites with her "Lady Bird" star Saoirse Ronan in the new film "Little Women." In Gerwig's adaptation, Ronan stars as Louisa May Alcott's headstrong heroine Jo March. Film critic Justin Chang has this review.
JUSTIN CHANG, BYLINE: Over the past few weeks, I've had people ask me about the new "Little Women" with equal parts excitement and nervousness. Was it any good? After so many earlier screen adaptations of Louisa May Alcott's beloved novel, from the 1933 Katharine Hepburn film to Gillian Armstrong's 1994 version, did we really need another go-round with the March sisters? I'm happy to report that the answer to both questions is a resounding yes.
Greta Gerwig has reshaped Alcott's novel with a touch that feels both faithful and radical. She wants to give us all the warm, homespun pleasures and emotional satisfactions of "Little Women" - the period costumes; the sisters' fireside chats and scuffles; their verbal and emotional sparring matches with the boy next door, Laurie. But Gerwig also wants to hold this well-worn text up to the light, to approach it from a fresh perspective and even consider some of its flaws and compromises. Her boldest stroke is to shake up the chronology, cutting between two timeframes that begin seven years apart.
When the movie opens Saoirse Ronan's brash, ambitious Jo March is already in New York, pursuing her dream of being a writer. The first scene finds her meeting with a publisher, a sly Tracy Letts, and arguing over the plot and the fee of a story she's submitted. Jo is treated as a stand-in for Alcott herself, who also had to negotiate to protect her work. Right from the start, Gerwig makes clear that this will be a story about the limited opportunities that were then available to women, especially women artists.
That's also true of Jo's youngest sister, Amy, played by a vivacious Florence Pugh. She's in Paris studying to be a painter, but she knows she'll have to marry well to secure her future. While there, she runs into Laurie, perfectly played by Timothee Chalamet, in full, tasseled heartthrob mode. They argue over the subject of marriage and a wealthy young suitor who's been courting Amy.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "LITTLE WOMEN")
FLORENCE PUGH: (As Amy March) I've always known I would marry rich. Why should I be ashamed of that?
TIMOTHEE CHALAMET: (As Laurie) It's nothing to be ashamed of, as long as you love him.
PUGH: (As Amy March) Well, I believe we have some power over who we love. It isn't something that just happens to a person.
CHALAMET: (As Laurie) I think the poets might disagree.
PUGH: (As Amy March) Well, I'm not a poet. I'm just a woman. And as a woman, there's no way for me to make my own money, not enough to earn a living or to support my family. And if I had my own money, which I don't, that money would belong to my husband the moment we got married. And if we had children, they would be his, not mine. They would be his property. So don't sit there and tell me that marriage isn't an economic proposition because it is. May not be for you, but it most certainly is for me.
CHANG: By contrast, the eldest March sister Meg, played by Emma Watson, wed her husband John for love and doesn't regret it, despite their everyday struggles with money. They still live in their Massachusetts hometown, as does the shy Beth March, played by Eliza Scanlen, who's already sick and growing steadily weaker. Although no prior familiarity with "Little Women" is necessary to enjoy this movie, Gerwig knows that many in the audience will know the story well, and that's why she feels liberated to tell it as irreverently as she does here.
After following the grown-up sisters separately for a while, she takes us back to their girlhood years, when they were all under the same roof. There's the party where Jo meets and dances with Laurie; the time Amy burns Jo's manuscript out of spite; the kindness of Laurie's grandfather, sweetly played by Chris Cooper, who gives Beth his piano. There is the warm, anchoring presence of Laura Dern as the sisters' loving mother Marmee and also the sour condescension of Meryl Streep as their rich, imperious Aunt March. These moments overlap with later ones, including Jo's spirited literary arguments with a professor in New York, played by the brooding French charmer Louis Garrel.
As in "Lady Bird," Gerwig races through every scene with a furious velocity. She combines overlapping dialogue, whirling camerawork and quick cuts to exhilarating effect. You feel as if you're in the room with these characters, swept up in their domestic dramas. At the same time, there's something deeply piercing about the way Gerwig keeps flashing backward and forward so that past and present seem to be echoing each other. While the structure takes some getting used to, it begins to pay off emotionally in a way that I've never seen "Little Women" do before. The happy moments feel all the more fleeting, the tragic ones all the more inevitable.
Emma Watson and Eliza Scanlen make a lovely Meg and Beth, but their characters feel secondary by design. This "Little Women" is a fierce tug of war between Jo and Amy. And Saoirse Ronan and Florence Pugh are blazingly good as two highly competitive sisters who are more alike than they care to admit. Both are equally determined to forge their own paths in art and in love.
Speaking of love, Alcott famously had a different ending in mind from the more conventional romantic one she was pressured into writing by her readers and her publisher. One hundred fifty years later, Gerwig sets out to gently redress that wrong with a clever metafictional twist that both honors and subverts the original. It's enormously satisfying to see Gerwig bridge the gap between the expectations of readers then and the desires of audiences now. She hasn't just made "Little Women" her own; she's made a movie that rightly belongs to all of us.
DAVIES: Justin Chang is a film critic for the LA Times. Justin will be back on Monday's show, along with our TV critic David BIANCULLI, when we look back at the year in movies and television. They'll each have their 10 best lists. You might want to catch some of their favorites during the holidays. Hope you can join us.
FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham, with additional engineering support from Joyce Lieberman and Julian Herzfeld. Our associate producer for digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Therese Madden directed today's show. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.
We'll end with the Hoagy Carmichael song "Winter Moon" from an album of winter songs featuring singer Rebecca Kilgore with the band Echoes of Swing.
(SOUNDBITE OF HOAGY CARMICHAEL AND THE ECHOES OF SWING'S "WINTER MOON")
REBECCA KILGORE: (Singing) Winter moon, up there alone in the sky. All I can hear is the word goodbye. Winter moon, do you recall a night in June? When is love's magic? Where did it go? Has it gone like the summertime that we used to know? Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.