Director: Gillian Armstrong
Screenplay: Robin Swicord, based on the novel by Louisa May Alcott
Starring: Winona Ryder, Gabriel Byrne, Trini Alvarado, Samantha Mathis, Kirsten Dunst, Claire Danes, Christian Bale, Eric Stoltz, Susan Sarandon
After a decade-long slog through the backwaters of American Independent Cinema (both in front of and behind the camera) Greta Gerwig finally broke her way into the public consciousness with her first solo directing gig – the irreverent Lady Bird. A hit with critics and audiences, the announcement of her next directorial project, Little Women, was received with great enthusiasm all around. “Little Women” is an incredibly precious story to girls and women across the world (evidently so as Gerwig’s adaptation will be the fourth film based on the Louisa May Alcott novel) and for good reason. The story of four sisters seeking their own destiny during the American Civil War is a significant piece of feminist literature prior to the Women’s Suffrage era; up there with the likes of “Pride and Prejudice” and “Jane Eyre”. So, despite the genuine and pleasant anticipation for Gerwig’s version, it has some big shoes to fill. Standards have not only been set by Alcott’s novel but also by previous adaptations, all of which have Academy Award nominations (and a few with wins). The 1933 and ’49 versions are typically popular with our grandmothers’ generation, but the beloved 1994 movie was an experience shared with mothers and daughters of the millennium. This version, a Gillian Armstrong directorial effort, is to many the definitive version.
Watching Little Women in many ways transcends the act of enjoying a movie – you almost feel like a time traveller, witnessing the change and transformation of the principal characters throughout their lives. This is of testament to the fact that Gillian Armstrong’s work is an example of extraordinary filmmaking: individual elements exceeding expectations to then be combined into an outstanding single artwork. Not only is it a viewing experience, but it can act as a tradition. Even though most of the film’s action takes place across all the seasons of the year, Little Women has come to sit amongst the likes of It’s A Wonderful Life and The Snowman as typical Christmas viewing; a true testament to its hearty appeal.
Little Women follows the lives of four young sisters as told by the second oldest – the wild and headstrong Jo March (Ryder). Meg (Alvarado) is the eldest sister, followed by Jo, Beth (Danes) and finally Amy (Dunst/Mathis), the youngest. Their father is away from home serving as a chaplain amongst the Unionist troops, leaving his daughters and their “Marmee” (Sarandon) to fend for themselves in a world dominated by poverty, classism and sexism. In the face of all this adversity, the March girls are still given an outspoken and loving upbringing that makes them unafraid to chase after their dreams. In their world of pomp and circumstance, these sisters remain faithful to their parents’ teachings of the equality of all people and the utmost importance of compassion, and often challenge the expectations of female behaviour at the time. The witnessing of these young girls transforming into little women is overall heart-warming, often bittersweet and finally triumphant as Jo, Beth, Meg and Amy experience all the trials of growing up in a story that still resonates with young, contemporary audiences.
What impresses me the most is how enthusiastic this adaption is, especially in remaining faithful to the tone of the book. For a modern reader, it is very easy to smirk and sneer at the March girls who often get excited at the prospect of an evening in, reading “The Bible”. More often than not, Hollywood can hardly resist putting a modern edge to supposedly out-dated stories in an attempt to make them more palatable, but Anderson’s version boldly showcases the lives of four Christian girls whom wholeheartedly believe in the Tenets they were raised with. Without embarrassment over these sisters’ funny old-fashioned ways, the film is able to fully immerse the audience into a different time and place, creating an unexpected empathy. We can believe these girls would give away their much-anticipated Christmas Breakfast to cold and hungry refugees, and we can believe it is because of their massively compassionate hearts (with only a little bit of a sanctimonious air). This faithfulness allows us to appreciate the struggle women endured at the time – a varnish of fourth-wave feminism would get in the way of not only the story of the March girls but also the origins of Women’s Suffrage as a whole.
The stunning fidelity to Alcott’s semi-autobiographical tale is achieved by the incredible characterisations of the March girls (and the other principal characters) alongside the fantastic performances used to deliver these most beloved personages. It goes without saying that the casting of this movie is phenomenal with many of the actors validating their A-List status through this movie alone. Trini Alvarado perfectly embodies the fine line many eldest siblings tread, playing a character constantly outraged and aggravated by the antics of younger sisters whilst also having the maturity to shoulder responsibility from their parents in times of strife, especially to bring happiness to the younger ones. Kirsten Dunst and Claire Danes wow audiences with incredibly dedicated performances despite their young ages (Danes was 14, Dunst was 11), both perfectly embodying their respective characters to such an extent that its difficult to see where Danes and Dunst end, and where Amy and Beth begin, to the point that you could unfairly label Dunst as precocious/annoying and Danes as too quiet. Those who make that mistake would miss the enjoyably spoilt, materialistic nature of the baby of the family, as Kirsten Dunst’s Amy causes you to flash back to all the times you threatened to murder a troublesome younger sibling. Then of course we have Winona Ryder as Jo, in the role she was seemingly born to play. Ryder proves that she is the unchallenged star of the show, creating a Jo who is fierce, outspoken, headstrong, emotional and compassionate. It’s simply an inspired performance with Ryder’s Jo embodying the woman who girls of the nineties dreamed of becoming. We can credit Ryder with one of the most real characters ever seen on screen as she throws herself entirely into Jo’s tempers and passions; creating a tangible, empathetic protagonist. This movie may possibly be the only time audiences see the true extent of the rage of a teenage girl and it is fantastic. Most importantly, she doesn’t use Jo as a vehicle of contemporary feminism, instead staying true to the aspirations of the characterisation in the novel, leading to a message that is able to speak to women of all ages, including those who are yet to discover the film. And then, of course, there’s Christian Bale who embodies every girl’s adolescent crush in the character of Laurie.
Despite the film being literally stuffed with outstanding performances and hugely emotional scenes, it does suffer with pacing issues. Like Tolkien’s “The Hobbit”, filmmakers have often struggled with adapting the works of Alcott – the actual novel of “Little Women” only provides the plot of the first hour of the film, for example. The rest of the runtime is made up by “Good Wives”, which is often published alongside “Little Women” as a sort of Part Two within one book. However, as the original novel of “Little Women” works as a self-contained story in its own right, the film does seem to climax prematurely, and it could be said that it then has a much slower separate plot tacked on to the end. There are many memorable and wonderful moments after the first hour mark admittedly, but the change in intensity is jarring, itself made prominent with the swapping-in of the more forgettable Samantha Mathis as a grown up Amy. There is enough charm to keep audiences hooked but the tension of the first hour is certainly missed.
Beyond the power of the narrative and the story, Little Women proves to be a truly sumptuous watch. My personal recommendation is to watch the film during the lazy nights of Christmas and New Year’s Day, underneath a throw with a hot chocolate: man or woman, brothers or sisters. This movie deserves to become such an annual tradition as every element is executed to the highest possible standard of the industry.
It is universally acknowledged that Thomas Newton was absolutely robbed at the 1995 Academy Awards with his musical score being as instantly recognisable as the likes of John Williams’ blockbuster compositions. Even his shortest pieces invoke multiple themes and emotions including Christmas, mischief, romance and grief. Listening to the music alone is almost as enjoyable as actually watching the film.
Little Women is equally pleasing from a visual standpoint, with aspects such as hair and wardrobe achieving stunning yet historically accurate period pieces, boasting authenticity as one character’s dress becomes a hand me down, passing to their younger sisters; such attention to detail is a sheer delight to see in any movie. The pièce de résistance is, however, the set design and location shooting – the interior design of the March home was based on the layout of Orchard House, Louisa Alcott’s childhood home, and Craigdarroch Castle in all of its original glorious woodwork provides the setting for Engagement and “Coming Out” Parties. To have watched the film to death on VHS and then to experience it on a 4K television was amazing. After 20 years it was the first time I could appreciate how beautiful this movie actually is and the immense amount of hard work that was poured into it by all departments.
At this point it is blindingly clear that Little Women was filmed with an almost reverent love; anything less and I don’t think the movie would have been able to bestow such an authentic message. Just like a real family, there are countless struggles and trials that are dealt with humility and honesty. The countless families that have dealt with grief and loss are able to see themselves within the March sisters and revel in the reflection of the love they see in their own lives. My favourite aspect is the depiction of friendship between a man and a woman: Winona Ryder and Christian Bale perfectly show the loving and selfless, giving and taking of a relationship without sexual undertones, the likes of which often cheapen such depicted relationships in film. It is true that a romantic element comes in between Laurie and Jo, but it smashes expectations and clichés, and is even quite courageous in its approach.
Little Women is a truly unique movie, arising out of the decade of action blockbusters with a surprisingly huge amount of warmth. A faithful adaption and stunning period piece. The popularity and the importance of Alcott’s novels means continued adaptions are certain, but so long as filmmakers aim to reach the lofty heights achieved by Gillian Armstrong, any future attempt should do this beloved book justice.