Alcott wrote Little Women in 1868, at the behest of her (male) publisher, who wanted a story for girls. Alcott didn’t like the idea, preferring to write about boys. She forced herself to pen a disguised autobiography, with as much realism as she could muster. That meant that the character of Josephine, based on herself, was also a writer, trying to find her own voice in the novel. In one scene Jo visits the publisher of a sensationalist weekly called The Volcano, where a Mr Dashwood tells her to cut the moral lessons from her story. “Morals don’t sell nowadays,” he says, red pencilling large sections. (Surely it’s no accident that his name reminds us of Jane Austen?).
Gerwig recreates this scene almost verbatim, when Saoirse Ronan forces herself to enter the smoke-filled offices of a New York publisher. This scene gives Gerwig’s script its smartest idea – to tell the story of Louisa Alcott alongside that of her much-loved characters. So in this scene, Ronan is playing Alcott, rather than Jo March. Gerwig shoots the two realities with different lighting, so we are rarely confused. Louisa’s struggles are grittier and darker; the lives of Jo March and her family are bathed in light and colour, like a cover of an old Saturday Evening Post. It’s corny but Gerwig makes it work, through the force of her belief in this material. Her direction is committed – balancing warmth and humour, passion and drama, light and dark.
A few years ago, Gerwig was a promising young actor with a quirky style that suggested a career in independent comedy – a bit Judy Holliday, a bit Diane Keaton – but she was also a writer. She co-wrote the delightful Frances Ha (2012) with Noah Baumbach, with whom she is now partnered. In 2017 she wrote and directed Lady Bird, based on her own experience growing up in California. Ronan played the lead in that film too. Two actors from that cast appear here – Tracy Letts plays Mr Dashwood, and Timothee Chalamet plays “Laurie” Laurence, the young man torn between Jo (Ronan) and younger sister Amy (Florence Pugh). Emma Watson plays the elder sister Meg, in the film’s only unconvincing casting. Eliza Scanlen plays Beth, the peacemaker among the combative March girls. Meryl Streep steals all that she surveys as the crusty old Aunt March, whose advice is that women must marry well – unless they’re rich, like her.
This Little Women delivers at breakneck speed and with great physicality. The dialogue is at screwball comedy pace, tumbling and babbling like a mountain stream. Ronan runs through the streets of New York at full pace, as a young lady ought not; she and her sisters wrestle on the floor of their modest cottage in Concord, Massachusetts, sloughing off their wet skirts in front of the fire. There are only women in this house, as their father is away at the civil war. Laura Dern is their mother Marmee, whose strength and character shine quietly through the ups and downs.
Some might find that this #MeToo modernism a little forced. Gerwig forestalls that reaction, through unstoppable energy and warmth. About 20 minutes in, the characters cease to be characters; they are now flesh and blood, our sisters. We feel their happiness and despond, their cold feet and warm hearts, their slights and loves. It’s a masterful, passionate, all-in kind of adaptation. As the sports commentators say, Gerwig should podium in coming contests.