Simon Dillon reviews this absorbing, generous, warm hug of a film

Little Women

Writer/director Greta Gerwig's take on Louisa May Alcott's Little Women is nothing less than superb. Of the previous versions, I like the 1933 version, am less keen on the 1949 version, and have a soft spot for the underrated 1994 version. However, this new take is the best of the bunch by some distance, with Gerwig making bold directorial and narrative choices that pay off in spades.

For example, Gerwig begins by introducing grown-up Jo March (Saorise Ronan) as a struggling writer living in New York, pitching her work to a publisher. She then receives news that her sister Beth (Eliza Scanlen) is ill, and returns home to Massachusetts. Flashbacks ensue, telling the story of Jo and Beth growing up with their other sisters Meg (Emma Watson) and Amy (Florence Pugh), during the American Civil War. Most of the memorable incident in the novel is present and correct - including Meg's hair burning and Amy's novel burning (the latter still nigh-on unforgivable as far as I'm concerned) - but Gerwig's structure, intercutting between past and present, adds contrast and irony in ways that are emotionally resonant and thought provoking (the episode with Beth's illness being a key case in point).

Introducing the characters as adults wrong-foots anyone coming to this film thinking it's a slight tale of pleasant middle-class teenage girls circa 19th Century America who "struggle", but do all right in the end. Rather, this is a story with a genuinely ambitious protagonist (Jo) who, against the social confines of the time, doesn't see marriage and children as her primary calling in life, and wants to be taken seriously as a writer. Her sisters likewise have hopes and dreams of their own, even if in some cases (Meg), they are more modest and conventional.

The cast are all terrific. In particular, Florence Pugh's take on Amy is much deeper than in previous versions (the clashes with Jo are usually depicted in brattier terms). Although I'm not normally a fan of Emma Watson, here she surprised me, proving a warm and engaging Meg. There is also fine support from Laura Dern (Marmee March), Timothee Chalamet (the girl's childhood friend Laurie, who falls obsessively in love with Jo), James Norton (John Brooke, a respectable teacher Meg sets her sights on), Chris Cooper (the March's kindly and wealthy neighbour, Mr Laurence), and Meryl Streep (Aunt March, who steals every one of her scenes). It's worth mentioning Chris Cooper's splendid turn as the March's wealthy but kindly neighbour Mr Laurence, whose quiet grief over the loss of his daughter is eased by Beth's piano playing. Oh - and I very much liked Louis Garrel's take on Friedrich Bhaer, who gives Jo the tough love criticism she needs to spur her on to better writing.

However, it is Saorise Ronan's central performance that impressed me above all. She perfectly captures Jo's restless, independent, ink-under-the-fingernails determination. We admire her courage, kindness, and ambition, but also witness her pride, doubts, vulnerabilities, and failings. In short, she is a fantastic rendering of one of my favourite literary characters. On top of all this, Yorick Le Saux's gorgeous cinematography is a delight for the eye, and Alexandre Desplat contributes a lovely music score that might even equal the Thomas Newman score from the 1994 version (the latter ended up getting overused in umpteen trailers, so you've probably heard it even if you don't know what it's from).

Quite honestly I've never understood the literary snobbery about Little Women in certain quarters. For me it's as important as Austen. Here it gets an extraordinary, brilliant, big screen treatment. As an alternative to lightsabres and space battles, this absorbing, generous, warm hug of a film is perfect counter-programming for a trip to the cinema this Christmas. In fact, I think it might well be the best film I've seen this year. Expect Oscar nominations. CR

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