Little Women: directed by Gillian Armstrong; written by Robin Swicord
The 1994 adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women plays out something like an illustrated classic version of the novel. It beckons to you with a warmth and easiness which immediately endears you to its cause, as it should. Tonally, the picturesque image of the March’s home bathed in snow on Christmas morning tells us all we need to know. The cinematic language at work in Armstrong’s direction is one of sweet sentimentality as opposed to the sharper humour of the Cukor version. And, for the version Armstrong is out to create, it’s perfectly adequate. And, I say “illustrated classic version” not because the film feels truncated or disjointed (it doesn’t and it isn’t) but because the film – sweet, though it may be – comes off feeling somewhat slight although it avoids (but, barely) feeling like beautiful frippery.
Despite the simplicity of the novel’s main thrust it poses two significant problem to screen-writers. For one, it’s split in two almost equal parts. Further, the first part traverses a year, the second half more than five years. This precipitates the second issue, there are a number of themes to navigate through textually, the discerning screen-writer must be wise to not attempt all. (Ideally, I suspect that Little Women actually is one of those classic novels that would work particularly well as a miniseries.) Swicord’s decision to adopt a highlights version of the novel makes for the same ambling plot of its inspiration – the four March sisters deal with growing up, love, life, death and war in the mid 19th century.
Swicord’s adapation, then, is the one of the novel which is most beholden to Alcott’s novel. It accomplishes the ensemble nature of the first half in an impressive way which is good and bad for the film since Winona Ryder’s de facto lead in Jo March is a performance that would do well if the film were more decisively interested in her, and what she does. How odd is it that Winona, a performer who does not especially evoke the sensibilities which come with being a denizen from the period era, earned her two consecutive Oscar bids for period dramas? Because, of how Little Women plays out it’s essential that Jo simply emerge as the character we are most enamoured with and it does not exactly compute in this version. When the time jump occurs and we’re thrust into a film where Jo is front and centre it falters. There is a line where Mr. Bhaer, an imminent suitor, says, of Jo, “Such a little name for… such a person.” And, Winona is lovely, effervescent in the comedic scenes, sweetly winsome in the dramatic ones but she is not quite “such a person”. She is almost such a person and is enough of such a person that the film doesn’t implode. In fact, considering that Winona seems vaguely ill-at-ease at odd occasions in the film, she elicits a committed performance, which ends up being half the battle.
In fact, I’d probably submit that the performances in Little Women are across the board a source of consistent pleasure. Susan Sarandon, who has now managed to successfully telegraph the role of the mother we all should have down pat accomplishes the task of making the surreally perfect Marmee work both as an indication of motherhood at its acme, and a somewhat beleaguered woman dealing with the turmoil of raising four girls in the middle of the century. I pause at saying it’s the film’s finest performance, but it does emerge as something of the film’s most important one because the most effective scenes of the film end up being those involving her. As the first real novel I ever read, I’ve always had long-term affection for the novel. I’m nonetheless willing to admit that it’s the first half of the novel (the cycle which lasts one year from Christmas to Christmas) which is the strongest. It’s the same in the film not necessarily because it’s better written, but Anderson does wonder with the establishment of the familial issues which mark that first half.
After the absolutely delightful wedding scene everything post the one hour mark seems oddly dun. And one understands how Winona’s Jo, after leaving home and a marriage proposal might be that more morose but it does make for a slight bit of cheerlessness when Jo meets Mr. Bhaer which immediately sets that love affair at as a disadvantage. It doesn’t help that as much as Gabriel Byrne and Winona try individually it takes some time for them to work as a couple (especially since an incredibly winsome Bale and Ryder have excellent chemistry, immediately). It’s a sign of the problem I have with the entire second half. Things leave the March house and Anderson’s direction, though uniformly serviceable throughout, seems unable to accrete vigour in the way that you’d want things to for such a tale. So, Jo and Fredreich’s liaison, Laure and Amy’s dalliance, Meg’s married life, the trip across Europe all land fairly well but lack the distinct sparkle to the affairs makes it more pleasant than invigorating. Which a coming of age drama (which the film ultimately functions as) should be.
Armstrong’s dedication to the story is wholly evident. Her visuals are tender, and the film’s production design and costumes are exemplary (although, curiously unblemished). This Little Women, though, feels somewhat low-key. And low-key is sometimes the right key but for a coming of age tale which should burst with effervescence (and does so in the first hour) it comes across as merely satisfactory.