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'Little Women': A Star-Studded Christmas Classic for Our Time

Superb cast infuses Alcott's 19th-century tale with modern feminist energy

Rating: PG

Run time: 2 hours 15 minutes

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Stars: Laura Dern, Florence Pugh, Saoirse Ronan, Meryl Streep, Emma Watson

Director: Greta Gerwig

Fresh from her smash coming-of-age dramedy Lady Bird, Oscar-nominated writer-director-actress Greta Gerwig could have done anything. She chose to adapt and direct Louisa May Alcott’s 1868 landmark novel Little Women, reuniting with Saoirse Ronan as aspiring writer and independent thinker Jo March. The 14th movie version (after the two most popular ones, Gillian Armstrong’s in 1994 and Mervyn LeRoy’s in 1949), it’s an expansive prestige period piece, faithful to the novel’s girl-power spirit while confronting the society’s financial and intellectual inequality sharply and vividly. Perhaps, as an independent artist like Jo, Gerwig wanted to prove she could succeed commercially, by directing a big-budget studio film.

The familiar story of the March sisters of Concord, Massachusetts — Jo, Meg (Emma Watson), Amy (Florence Pugh) and Beth (Eliza Scanlen) — and their beloved Marmee (Laura Dern, 52) and prickly Aunt March (Meryl Streep, 70) gets the full Pride & Prejudice/Downton Abbey treatment. As the economically strapped quartet struggle toward adulthood while their absent father (Better Call Saul’s Bob Odenkirk, 57) fights the good fight for the North, they confront the pitfalls of securing a profitable match with the gusto of all Austen heroines. More forcefully than in previous adaptations, money is very much on the minds of these young ladies — 19th-century women who, by law, were denied ownership of their own children and, when married, handed over all inherited goods to the groom.

Surrounded by a dream cast, Ronan luminously and energetically hefts the plot. Watson makes a charismatic Meg, and lesser-known Pugh and Scanlen continue to rise to stardom as jealous Amy and saintly Beth. Dern ends a year of career highs (she’ll likely win the best supporting actress Oscar for Marriage Story) as the self-sacrificing uber-mother who nonetheless admits to her darling Jo that she is perpetually angry beneath her loving façade. Streep finely etches a few critical scenes as the wealthy spinster whose money controls the girls’ fates — and earns her the right to speak her mind. Timothee Chalamet, James Norton and Louis Garrel are ideal suitors; sad-eyed Chris Cooper, 68, is gravity itself as the socially prominent next-door neighbor.

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Every scene is gleamingly shot and framed by cinematographer Yorick LeSaux. Oscar winner Jacqueline Durran’s costumes are stunning, and production designer Jess Gonchor offers more than idealized interior design: His keen eye for the disparities of wealth helps define the characters.

If there’s trouble in this women’s paradise, it’s that Gerwig’s script sashays back and forth in time and doesn’t heed the critical advice given to scribbler Jo by condescending editor Mr. Dashwood (Tracy Letts, 54). He cavalierly slashes his fountain pen across Jo’s pages, cutting and tightening. At 135 minutes, the movie has too many scenes that reiterate parallel points, distracting dream sequences and more endings than a James Brown concert. That said, Gerwig has delivered an ambitious, energetic and sweeping Little Women for our time — politically astute, female artist-forward, and alive with the juicy sibling rivalries and loyalties that define these flawed, big-hearted, literary little women.

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