Elegant and Subtle ‘Little Women’

San Francisco Chronicle, December 21 1994

Elegant and Subtle ‘Little Women’

Sarandon and Ryder star in latest remake

By Edward Guthmann

LITTLE WOMEN: Drama. Starring Winona Ryder, Susan Sarandon, Trini Alvarado, Kirsten Dunst, Samantha Mathis, Claire Danes, Christian Bales, Gabriel Byrne and Eric Stoltz. Directed by Gillian Armstrong. (PG. 110 minutes.)

Making a film from Louisa May Alcott’s ‘Little Women’ is asking for trouble. Constantly in print since its publication in 1868, the novel is so revered by its fans, mostly women, that they tend to feel proprietary toward it, and regard its title characters as extended family.

Moreover, there are two previous film versions to compare it with, both available on video and in frequent TV broadcasts. The original, made in 1933, starred Katharine Hepburn as Jo, the impetuous tomboy who was Alcott’s alter ego. The second, made at MGM in 1949, starred June Allyson as Jo and Elizabeth Taylor as the youngest of the four March sisters, Amy.

None of that deterred Gillian Armstrong, the gifted Australian director of ‘My Brilliant Career,’ ‘Mrs. Soffel’ and ‘High Tide’.

Meticulously crafted, and warmly acted by a cast that includes Winona Ryder as Jo and Susan Sarandon as her mother, the devoted Marmee, ‘Little Women’ is one of the rare Hollywood studio films that invites your attention, slowly and elegantly, rather than propelling your interest with effects and easy manipulation.

Largely autobiographical, ‘Little Women’ takes place in Concord, Mass. (but was filmed in British Columbia), during and after the Civil War. When it opens in 1864, Mr. March is away at war and his wife and daughters are left at home. ‘A temporary poverty had settled on our family,’ Jo/Ryder says in her narration, setting the emotional tone for the film. ‘Somehow in that dark time, our family seemed to create its own light.’

In addition to passionate, self-doubting Jo, there’s Meg (Trini Alvarado), the oldest and strongest; Beth (Claire Danes), the sickly one who never dreams of leaving home; and Amy (played by Kirsten Dunst as a 12-year-old, and Samantha Mathis as a 16-year-old), the youngest and most determined to marry rich.

The family may be hard-pressed during the war — poor Meg has to borrow a friend’s dress to attend a coming-out ball, and cadge a pair of fancy shoes from a free box — but the love that the sisters draw from their mother is a rare luxury. A font of wisdom and unconditional kindness, Marmee is the mother every girl dreams of having: a model of composure and insight, an early feminist who encourages her daughters to develop their intellect, humor and moral courage, to ’embrace their liberty.’

I heard someone say at a recent preview that Marmee was ‘a little too much’ in the film — meaning too sweet and sticky, too good to be true. I don’t agree: Although the character as written may be overly virtuous, Sarandon plays her so directly, and with such clear-eyed strength, that she seems fully plausible.

I can’t think of another actress who could have embodied Marmee so well. You look at her and you think: ‘Well, of course, if someone as inspiring as Susan Sarandon could actually exist, then Marmee could have, too.’

It’s Jo’s story that drives the film: Fiercely principled, and young enough still to be shocked when people behave in ways that are selfish and cruel, Jo wears her adolescence and sensitivity like scratchy woolen garments. Believing herself ugly and awkward, convinced she’ll never fit in, Jo pours herself into her writing, ‘longing for transformation.’

Mostly anecdotal, ‘Little Women’ is built from a series of scenes and impressions that take place during two periods: 1864, when the family is divided but supplies its own ‘light,’ and 1868, when the girls are growing and leaving the nest, and Jo moves to New York City to pursue her writing career.

We see them acting out ‘wild theatricals’ in the attic; we see the family rally around the ailing Beth, and defend Amy when her teacher strikes her at school; we see the devotion of the maid, Hannah (Florence Paterson), the intrusions of the crabby spinster, Aunt March (Mary Wickes), and meet Laurie (Christian Bale), the bright, fanciful boy who lives next door and becomes a surrogate brother.

The strong cast also includes Eric Stoltz as John Brooke, a pseudo-intellectual who tutors Laurie, John Neville as Laurie’s rich and generous grandfather, and Gabriel Byrne as Friedrich, the itinerant philosopher and poet who recognizes the talent in Jo and encourages her to tell her own story, to write from ‘the depths of your soul.’

Armstrong, one of the most observant and subtle of directors, does a lovely job of capturing the enchantment, drama and confused expectations of adolescence. She doesn’t mock teenage awkwardness, but respects it and celebrates it as a time when possibilities are present, when a girl’s character is busily taking shape.

For anyone who’s admired Armstrong’s gifts in the past — particularly ‘Mrs. Soffel,’ with which her new film shares the most qualities — then ‘Little Women’ is probably guaranteed to please. It has the same quiet passion, the same appreciation for texture and small detail, and uses the same technique of underlighting — emphasizing shadow and density of space, creating a distinct mood and sense of place.

If anything, Armstrong may err on the side of subtlety. Her ‘Little Women’ feels occasionally staid and enervated — as if the actresses’ Victorian corsets had worn them down, or the New England snow had muffled their voices and slowed their step.

There’s a dip in momentum in the film’s second half, when you start to long for more energy and spark. That’s a minor gripe, because the film in most regards is a gem — told simply and well, with love and conviction.