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 the 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 Aaaron 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.