Since sound pictures came in, every generation has gotten its own “Little Women.” What the modern public has done to deserve it is unclear, but 1990s audiences are the beneficiaries of an outstanding version of Louisa May Alcott’s perennial, one that surpasses even the best previous rendition, George Cukor’s 1933 outing starring Katharine Hepburn. A moving, passionately told story about the connections among four generations of a family’s women — and, more tellingly, the way women had to struggle to make a mark in a society in which their roles were heavily proscribed — this handsomely produced period piece is easily the most emotionally effective bigscreen melodrama since “The Joy Luck Club,” as well as the most intelligent. Even if many men, particularly younger ones, may choose to resist the picture’s charms, it will be warmly embraced by most viewers, including women of all ages, and it is easy to imagine some returning repeatedly. If smartly marketed, Columbia has a long-running winner here.
One measure of the film’s effectiveness is that it can stand equally well as a beautifully judged adaptation of a famous book, a personal work by director Gillian Armstrong that is very much a companion piece to her first film, “My Brilliant Career,” and a 19th-century bookend for Winona Ryder to the late 20th-century characterization with which she started the year in “Reality Bites.”
Alcott’s enduring 1868 novel about the growing up of four sisters in Concord, Mass., during and after the Civil War has been filmed four times previously, the first time as a silent in 1918. Cukor’s 1933 version is notable primarily for Hepburn’s luminous performance in the central role of Jo March and for the giddily conspiratorial feeling generated among the sisters, although the picture seems rather stiff and starchy today. By contrast, Mervyn LeRoy’s 1949 remake starring June Allyson and Elizabeth Taylor and a 1978 TV movie featuring Meredith Baxter were notable for very little at all.
One significant hurdle for the filmmakers was to take contemporary audiences over the threshold of vastly different mores and social conventions to a time when earnestness, family solidarity and sexual reserve were unquestioned standards of behavior, and cynicism and the doubting of authority had scarcely been heard of. They have been notably successful in this regard, thanks to the breezily conversational quality of Robin Swicord’s dialogue, the warm informality of the young actresses and the firm concentration on dramatic essentials displayed by director Armstrong. The four March “little women” are Meg (Trini Alvarado), Jo (Winona Ryder), Beth (Claire Danes) and Amy (initially Kirsten Dunst, then Samantha Mathis). Presided over by their mother, Marmee (Susan Sarandon), while their father is off fighting in the Union Army, the Marches were “once one of our finest families,” in the snide opinion of a neighbor, but have come to live in somewhat reduced circumstances in what is nevertheless a beautiful New England home.
The spirited girls are enthralled with dressing up for their own little theatricals and zealously throw themselves into their projects, which include helping the truly disadvantaged, with irrepressible abandon. In addition, the central character, Jo, is an aspiring writer who precociously spins melodramatic tales of adventure and crime.
In due course, in a period that atmospherically spans the seasons, the Marches forge a strong friendship with the young man across the way, Laurie (Christian Bale), whose dreams of a musical career would appear threatened by the call of the family firm. Beth catches scarlet fever as a result of her charitable work with the poor and is never the same again, while the very traditional Meg begins a courtship with stolid tutor John Brooke (Eric Stoltz).
Halfway through, the story jumps ahead four years, to Meg’s wedding to Brooke. Devastating Laurie by rejecting his marriage proposal, Jo is encouraged by her mother to “embrace your liberty” and moves to New York City. The contrast between the highly feminine Concord and heavily masculine Manhattan is vividly expressed, and Jo is only able to publish her sensationalist fiction under the name Joseph.
But at her boarding house, she meets a German immigrant philosophy professor, Friedrich Bhaer (Gabriel Byrne), with whom she has an instant accord. They quote Walt Whitman together and discuss women’s suffrage with other men, and he introduces her to the world of opera, which allows a tentative romance to bloom. At the same time, Amy pursues her interest in painting in Europe, where she becomes reacquainted with Laurie, who has become something of a dissolute playboy.
Spurred on by a family tragedy and Bhaer’s admonition that she “should be writing from life, from the depths of your soul,” Jo drops her formulaic fiction and fulfills her destiny by metamorphosing into Louisa May Alcott, writing a novel about her family life.
The ending, which rather neatly wraps everything up, still satisfies as a comparative view of how the various sisters are able to achieve something meaningful to each of them.
Armstrong paces her scenes at about half the speed that Cukor did, and they are all the better for it in terms of emotional resonance. Scenes are not milked for easy sentiment, but build power due to the integrity of the writing and performances. However thwarted Jo may be at various stages, artistically and personally, she perseveres and, happily, a late 20th-century feminist veneer has not been unnaturally imposed upon the material.
Performances by the actresses are all at least very good, with Ryder, Alvarado and Dunst making the strongest impressions. The male roles in the story have always been a bit thankless, but Bale does a creditable job as the spurned suitor.
Shot mostly in British Columbia, film has a splendid period look, thanks in good part to Jan Roelfs’ resourceful production design, Colleen Atwood’s impeccably detailed costumes and Geoffrey Simpson’s burnished lensing. Thomas Newman’s score is richly emotional without pandering.
Pic is dedicated to kidnap-murder victim Polly Klaas, from Ryder’s hometown of Petaluma, and the late agent Judy Fox-Scott.