Greta Gerwig has directed only two films that are solely her own but she’s already become a brand. That’s in evidence within the first five minutes of ‘Little Women’, a huggably self-deprecating take on the Louisa May Alcott classic. Brashly confident Jo (Saoirse Ronan, from Gerwig’s debut film ‘Lady Bird’, still uncorking those soulful stares that outclass the competition) sits in the office of a New York publishing house. Because it’s the 1860s, she has to pretend she’s trying to sell the work of a friend. But a parental editor (Tracy Letts, also from ‘Lady Bird’) sees through this and has mercy on her. He reads, pencil in hand. ‘Make sure she’s married at the end – or dead,’ he concludes, somewhat approvingly. Jo, elated, runs down a city block, just like Gerwig did in ‘Frances Ha’.
If this isn’t the ‘Little Women’ you remember, either on page or screen, that’s understandable. But it’s likely the one you felt, and that’s more important. Gerwig, who should be celebrated as both an evolving screenwriter (the bold adaptation is hers) and a shrewd formal stylist, cuts to the thematic essence of the novel – sisterhood and coming of age, but also nostalgia and mourning your own past – and finds a visual language for it. Alcott’s saga of the four March sisters has been divided and restitched by Gerwig into two interwoven halves. Girlish energy suffuses the warmly lit scenes of their Massachusetts teenhood (Daddy’s away, fighting the Civil War), days chockablock with attic theatr