MOVIE REVIEWS : A Time When Love and Respect Mattered : A Strong Cast Breathes New Life Into Remake of Alcott’s ‘Little Women’


Gillian Armstrong’s beguiling new version of Louisa May Alcott’s “Little Women” brings alive the past so vividly but perceives it through a contemporary sensibility so acute that you have the feeling that you’re watching life unfolding before you.

Armstrong, screenplay adapter/co-producer Robin Swicord and their colleagues have got everything just right: You really believe you’re observing New England family life in the 1860s, yet you’re almost subliminally aware that you’re seeing it from a present-day perspective.

For the record:

12:00 a.m. Dec. 22, 1994 For the Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday December 22, 1994 Home Edition Calendar Part F Page 7 Column 1 Entertainment Desk 1 inches; 28 words Type of Material: Correction
Film rating-- “Little Women” is rated by the MPAA as PG for two uses of mild language. The consumer guidelines at the end of Wednesday’s Calendar review mistakenly included a second reason for the rating.

In their vision, Alcott’s alter ego/heroine, Jo March (played by Winona Ryder), is not a modern-day feminist but rather points the way to the future in her unladylike ambition and outspoken free thinking. The filmmakers acknowledge the second-class status of Victorian-era women without making a federal case about it; indeed, if this “Little Women” reveals what women needed to gain for themselves it even more shows us what has been lost in much of middle-class American society: the love of and respect for family and ethical conduct in everyday life. In its charmingly persuasive way, “Little Women” suggests that such matters still count, no matter how we may tend to neglect them.


With her radiance and quizzical spirit, her courage and vulnerability, Ryder is perfectly cast as Jo, the most intellectual of the four March daughters of Concord, Mass. They live with their mother, Marmee (Susan Sarandon, just the actress to leaven Mrs. March’s sweetness with a dash of earthiness) in a spacious picture-book house of homespun warmth and well-worn beauty--it has that look an Ethan Allen catalogue promises.

But they’re hard put to make ends meet, and not just because Mr. March (Matthew Walker) is off fighting in the Civil War. The Marches are Transcendentalists, who--like fellow Concord resident Ralph Waldo Emerson--thought that reality may be perceived through spiritual intuition. They are such do-gooders, in fact, they’re poor.

“Once they were a fine family,” sniffs their rich, grand next-door neighbor Mr. Laurence (John Neville)--but that’s before he really gets to know them through his handsome grandson Laurie (Christian Bale), who becomes virtually a part of the March family. The other sisters, also captivating, are the demure, traditional Meg (Trini Alvarado), the gentle Beth (Claire Danes) and lively young Amy, who’s played by Kirsten Dunst at age 12 and Samantha Mathis at 16. Living nearby is Mr. March’s rich, selfish aunt (an amusing turn by Mary Wickes, one of the last great Hollywood character actors).

While fully recognizing the restrictions of genteel poverty and the female condition, Marmee, as an enlightened woman, encourages her daughters to make the most of themselves, especially Jo, who eventually goes off to New York to make her way as a writer, a daring act for a young woman of little means and fewer connections in the 1860s--and not one to be taken lightly today.

Among the men in their lives, Mr. March remains shadowy, even upon his return from war; Eric Stoltz is a prim but decent teacher. Bale’s Laurie and, later on, Gabriel Byrne’s German professor, a boarder in the Manhattan rooming house where Jo lodges, emerge as major figures, romantic, to be sure, but also as reflective as the March women.

Bale has an extraordinary scene in which we’re able to feel the full force of the pain of rejection upon a truly worthy young man--deeply in love, devoted, good-looking, rich, Harvard-educated, open-minded, with a future of limitless promise; you do have to wonder if a woman wouldn’t be just a little crazy to refuse him. Yet Armstrong makes such a turn of events as understandable as she did in her stunning, not dissimilar Australian 1978 debut film, “My Brilliant Career.”

“Little Women” is an affectionate, superbly acted group portrait of female strength and solidarity as four young women come of age and how, despite natural clashes and differences of temperament, they are ultimately always supportive of each other. The great thing about the film is its accessibility. It invites thought but plays like a sure-fire, heart-tugging Christmas season entertainment. And it looks glorious, alternately summoning up memories of Currier & Ives prints and illustrations from Godey’s Ladies’ Magazine.

In evoking the past, Armstrong is here even better served than in her “Mrs. Soffel,” set in turn-of-the-century Pittsburgh. Anachronisms are nearly nonexistent in this exquisite period piece, the creation of production designer Jan Roelfs and costume designer Colleen Atwood, whose crucial contributions have a burnished glow, thanks to cameraman Geoffrey Simpson’s care with lighting. Completing the picture is Thomas Newman’s lovely score.

Finally, “Little Women” says a great deal about Gillian Armstrong’s own character and integrity as an artist. As she has proceeded from one distinctive accomplishment to the next, alternating between America and her homeland, Armstrong has remained uncompromised among those Australians who have heeded Hollywood’s siren call.

* MPAA rating: PG for two uses of mild language and comic threat. Times guidelines: It is suitable for all ages.


‘Little Women’

Winona Ryder: Jo March Gabriel Byrne: Friedrich Bhaer Susan Sarandon: Mrs. March Trini Alvarado: Meg March Samantha Mathis: Older Amy March Kirsten Dunst: Younger Amy March Claire Danes: Beth March Christian Bale: Laurie Eric Stoltz: John Brooke John Neville: Mr. Laurence Mary Wickes: Aunt March A Columbia Pictures presentation of a DiNovi Pictures production. Director Gillian Armstrong. Producer Denise DiNovi. Screenplay/co-producer Robin Swicord; based on the novel by Louisa May Alcott. Cinematographer Geoffrey Simpson. Editor Nicholas Beauman. Costumes Colleen Atwood. Music Thomas Newman. Production designer Jan Roelfs. Art director Richard Hudolin. Set decorator Jim Erickson. Running time: 1 hour, 57 minutes.

* In limited release at the AMC Century 14, 10250 Santa Monica Blvd., Century City, (310) 553-8900; in general release throughout Southern California on Christmas Day.