The first question that popped into my mind watching Greta Gerwig's new adaptation of Little Women was this: how on earth did a creative who began the decade scratching around amid the generally scratchy and spendthrift mumblecore movement end it overseeing a major studio's lavish Christmas Day release? If nothing else, such rapid upward mobility suggests Hollywood has got something right, these past few years; that its collective eye for worthy talent and ear for a notable voice haven't completely abandoned it. Gerwig - one of the two or three mumblecore alumni who felt like a breath of fresh air, who opted out of the movement's shrugging indie-bro rhythms - always was a very modern screen presence, recognisably more of this century than the last. As a filmmaker, she brought a fresh pair of eyes to the push-me-pull-you mother-daughter bond at the heart of last year's Lady Bird; she achieves something comparable in tackling Louisa May Alcott's period go-to. The skittishness of Gerwig's onscreen persona persists in this Little Women's shuffled chronology - she blows through the text, which blows off any dust - and her knowingness is channelled into folding the writing of the book into the film itself. Her Jo March (Saoirse Ronan) is explicitly positioned as a surrogate for Alcott, or Gerwig, or indeed any young woman with creative urges; that this is very much a writer's film is evident from the way its maker is often caught stepping back from the text to insert some valuable pause for thought. In doing so, Gerwig keeps opening up rewarding new perspectives on what's long been a fairly lovely world to spend any time in. Why, it's almost as though she was wasted on the love interest role in Russell Brand's Arthur remake.
That writerly quality is also there in Gerwig's determination to approach the Marshes less as a group - as I seem to recall Gillian Armstrong doing in her 1994 film - than as individuals going their own ways. We join the sisters as Alcott left them, and Gerwig makes the case for each: Jo taking her first steps into the publishing arena beneath the disapproving eye of the literary editor Dashwood (Tracy Letts); Amy (Florence Pugh) in Paris with her aunt (Meryl Streep), taking up the paintbrush and crossing paths once more with the girls' teenage sweetheart Laurie (Timothée Chalamet); while the faintly conservative Meg (Emma Watson) remains on the homefront, watching over two children. What makes this an especially apt release for a moment where city dwellers the Western world over have returned to the family fold for the holidays is that it feels the pull of home so keenly. Alcott's main business - the detailed description of a Reconstruction-era household keeping itself going - is here rendered in flashbacks: the girlish mishaps with curling tongs and plaster-of-Paris, the games of dress-up, the first encounters and fallouts with the opposite sex. There's an element of paradise lost in all this - and, this being the America of the late 19th century, there is loss - except for the most part it all feels so alive, a brisk, spirited survey of the home that cradled, nurtured and forged these divergent souls, under the management of the loving mother (Laura Dern) who encouraged the Marsh girls to follow the paths we've already seen them on and thereby pull something together for themselves. The essentials remain, it's just that the cause and effect have been flipped. Of course we get the ice skating - would it be Little Women without it? - but its placement becomes doubly significant in a study of how and where young women find their feet.
From the early shot of a jubilant, just-published Jo tearing down the street to a final coach-and-horses dash to the railway station, this is an adaptation characterised above all else by movement, and that movement keeps stuffiness at bay; the shifts between the eternal present of the March homestead and the futures these girls fashioned for themselves equally never quite allow us to settle into the film (or, indeed, the past). Gerwig's stock-in-trade has always been agitation; it comes through here in her short, staccato, excitable scenes. Her players reassure us: this may well be the most perfectly cast studio picture of the decade, perhaps even of this century. So, yes, we spot how closely Ronan resembles Dern; but also that Gerwig has detected the meekness in Watson's screen persona, and that Chalamet is exactly that variety of young man - courtly, but with a hint of wildness - which all four sisters might fall for in their turn. She pours out the right amount of Streep for a period movie striving to avoid Silver Screen gentility; being the closest thing to a miracle worker the American cinema now has, Gerwig even gets Letts to soften and Louis Garrel (as Professor Bhaer) to smile. It does have the look of the most serene of shoots - the gathering of a happy family, surrounded by allies; a simple imprinting of personalities - which may have encouraged Gerwig to experiment in the edit, to set innocence against experience, and thereby gain in texture and depth. What she's intuited is that beneath that serene surface - and the fond memories her audience carries of this book - there exists a deeper sense of struggle: the struggles of any woman to make the right choices, to get by, to flourish. That's why she opens with a quote by Alcott herself ("I've had lots of troubles, so I write jolly books"); it's an acknowledgement this was a story born of such turbulence, which may be why it continues to strike chords in turbulent times.
We might instructively link Alcott's "troubles" with Gerwig's struggle to set an oestrogen-heavy project like this before a modern multiplex crowd. You may have read the online reports of young male cinemagoers loudly proclaiming that they have no intention whatsoever of going near a film called Little Women, which I don't recall was the case with the Armstrong adaptation. (Of course, that was in those blissful days of pre-Twitter silence.) One line of thought is that the new film may not need them: even going up against the glitzier distractions of a new Star Wars and Tom Hooper's Cats, Little Women sold out twice in two days at my local bijouplex, and I was watching as one of a very small handful of men in a room otherwise filled by enthusiastic females. Another would be that this would be their loss, because the new Little Women is nothing if not a learning experience, a succession of formative or teachable moments climaxing in Jo's last-reel evolution from airy creative into a hard-nosed businesswoman. (A progression that, in its own way, explains Gerwig's rapid rise through the Hollywood ranks.) Look, too, at the way Laurie and the boys look at the March girls, which is something like the way the boys looked at the girls in Sofia Coppola's 1970s-set The Virgin Suicides, and not unlike the way Gerwig herself looks upon her 21st century actresses: with a mixture of recognition, fascination-bordering-on-awe, and sincere, heartfelt affection. There is a reason Alcott's book keeps cropping up as a set text for schoolchildren and studio executives alike: it knows - as the ultra-knowing Gerwig knows - that little women are compelled by events to grow, mature, progress. Could we say the same of our little men, at this juncture in time?
Little Women is now playing in cinemas nationwide.