LITTLE WOMEN *** 1/2 Directed by Gillian Armstrong. Produced by Denise DiNovi, Screenplay by Robin Swicord from the 1868 novel by Louisa May Alcott.

Review: _Little Women_

From: edwin jahiel 
Subject: Review: LITTLE WOMEN
Reposted here with permission of the author

By Edwin Jahiel

LITTLE WOMEN *** 1/2 Directed by Gillian Armstrong. Produced by 
Denise DiNovi, Screenplay by Robin Swicord from the 1868 novel by 
Louisa May Alcott.  Photography, Geoffrey Simpson. Production 
design, Jan Roelfs. Editing, Nicholas Beauman. Costumes, Colleen 
Atwood. Music, Thomas Newman. Cast: Winona Ryder, Gabriel Byrne, 
Susan Sarandon, Trini Alvarado, Samantha Mathis, Kirsten Dunst, 
Claire Danes, Christian Bale, Eric Stoltz, John Neville, Mary 
Wickes, et al. A Columbia release. 115 min. Rated PG.

If you know Louisa May Alcott's book (or the movies from it) you may 
remember that Jo March who wants passionately to be a writer, at 
first concocts romantic-gothic stories and plays. Years later, 
seeking fame and fortune in New York, she produces lurid tales which 
are what she believes the public wants. Philosophy professor 
Friedrich Bhaer, the older German gentleman who becomes Jo's best 
critic, advises her to write from the heart, from her own 
experience. She does, and a classic is born, "Little Women."

This is emblematic of the film "Little Women" vis a vis Hollywood's 
production of appalling junk.  Not that Babylon-in-California does 
not come out, now and then, with fine, lurid items that issue from 
the head rather than the heart, like "Pulp Fiction" or "True 
Romance" (both written by Quentin Tarantino). But these are a small 
minority. Most from-the-heart pictures come from independents and 
from abroad.

"Little Women" is, for a change, a labor of love based on a 
labor-of-love novels. It not an "art" film but an old-fashioned 
movie that is given excellent and discreet modern treatment. It is 
rated PG, which normally means infantilism and a critical kiss of 
death, yet it goes well beyond pictures for young people or 
nostalgic adults. It basks in good English and in family love. And 
it goes from the heart to the heart.

The story of the four March sisters of Concord, Mass., is too 
familiar to retell to some viewers and too subtly handled to 
summarize for others. We meet them during the Civil War, in medias 
res, and follow for awhile their lives and their growth. Four years 
later they live separate lives and the focus is even more strongly 
than before on Jo (Winona Ryder), that free, imaginative (and early 
feminist) soul.

The acting is exceptional. Winona Ryder may not be the tomboy that 
Katharine  Hepburn was in the 1933 version, but nor is her 
interpretation as theatrical as Hepburn's. Somewhere between light 
Method acting and neo-naturalism, Ryder's performance is all in 
delicate (but not sissy-like) touches.

Ryder's is fine-tuned acting, all the more impressive when one 
thinks of her range and diversity, from "Beetlejuice" to the cabbie 
in Jim Jarmusch's neglected "Night on Earth."

Susan Sarandon, as the mother of the four, is effective in a smaller 
part that combines self-effacement with pleasant moral strength. The 
filmmakers retained all the authenticity of this very 19th century 
story, yet keep it gently echoing to our time. For practical 
purposes, since Mr. March is gone to the war, Sarandon is a single 
mother who handles her willing brood in exemplary fashion.  (She's 
been playing mothers all over of late, but this experience goes back 
to 1978, in "Pretty Baby" and in "King of the Gypsies" where, twice, 
she was t progenitor of Brooke Shields).

The other girls are Meg (Trini Alvarado) who at times looks 
startlingly like a junior Andie MacDowell, the plain and quiet Beth 
(Claire Danes of TV's "My So-Called Life"), and the youngest, 
vivacious, concerned with her looks, 12-year old Amy (Kirsten Dunst 
of "Interview with the Vampire") . When she becomes 16, she is 
played by Samantha Mathis.

The main male roles are convincingly performed: Laurie (Christian 
Bale) is the young man who becomes the March girls' "brother" and 
Gabriel Byrne as the German professor, fleshes out his simpatico, 
thoughtful persona in only a small number of scenes.

The film finds the ideal director in Australian Gillian Armstrong. 
She was the first woman in her country to direct a feature, her 
brilliant debut "My Brilliant Career," which also launched the 
wonderful Judy Davis. (Other Armstrong films include "High Tide," 
"Mrs. Soffel" and "The  Last Days of Chez Nous")

I would say that Armstrong, with her extraordinary flair and empathy 
for other women of all ages and natures, and especially for girls 
growing up, was predestined to do "Little Women."  Her experience as 
art director also enhances the look of this period piece. She also 
had a perfect collaborator in Ms. Robin Swicord a playwright attuned 
to speech.

"Little Women" is entirely faithful to the book's essence and 
spirit, although, for those who like splitting hairs, it is not a 
carbon copy. No good adaptation ever is, not even mini-series that 
have a lot more breathing space. A novel and a film operate under 
entirely different rules and applications, and, at a minimum, cuts 
and condensations are part and parcel of the screen versions. But 
what's left out in a first-rate script like this one is not crucial. 
It's not like leaving out the battle of Borodino in a movie of "War 
and Peace."

If I had to quibble, I would start with the sketchy and nebulous 
background figures of Mr. March and especially curmudgeonly Mr. 
Laurence, the March's neighbor and Laurie's grandfather. Laurie too 
starts out as a rather sad kid in the book. And in Kirsten Dunst 
(now 11; she may have been 10 when the film was shot), as the wining 
young Amy, there is discontinuity in looks and personality when she 
is replaced by Miss Mathis who looks to me like more than 16.

These are trivial objections given the film's quality and its 
deftness in keeping so much of the book without cramming. Almost all 
the scenes are brief, yet make their points without obvious 
compression or terseness. Events are not milked for pathos or 
effect, e.g. Jo's selling her hair. There is litotes (something like 
good shorthand) throughout. Watch for example when the older Amy, in 
France, has received a love-note from Laurie, now in London. The 
maid announces that Mr. Dashwood, Amy's suitor, has come to visit. 
The camera stays on Amy, immobile and with the kind of blank 
expression that spectators must fill in -- and we cut to an entirely 
different scene.

The production values are flawless. Landscapes are beautiful, 
clothes, artifacts and buildings give the movie a precise but 
unforced period look. You don't see movie sets, you get transported 
to an 1860s America --much of it filmed on Vancouver Island.

The March home, which is itself a main character, renders perfectly 
the family's genteel poverty, with its clutter, bric-a-brac, 
parsimonious use of lighting and heating, yet all this in a happy 
and warm ambiance.

Thomas Newman's score, slightly (and nicely) derivative of Aaron 
Copland at the start, later slid into pleasant, unobtrusively 
appropriate melodies.

Perhaps the operative word for this film is "sweet," not in a sugary 
way but in its best interpretation. I can't say that watching 
"Little Women" will spellbind you or challenge you intellectually, 
but it will hold your attention and give you a cumulative pleasure 
that builds up to a kind of enchantment.