Little Women (1994)
It is Christmas eve, and while I want to wish all my readers a very Merry Christmas, I thought I would also review one of the films that could make Christmas all the merrier. In 1993, Gillian Armstrong (“Oscar and Lucinda” (1997)) directed just yet another, as everyone then thought, adaptation of the famous novel by Louisa May Alcott “Little Women”. Based on the true-to-the novel script by Robin Swicord (“Wakefield” (2016)), the film stars such great names as Susan Sarandon, Winona Ryder, Gabriel Byrne, Kirsten Dunst and Christian Bale. The story is about four girls of the March family and their modest, but interesting lives in times of the Civil War in the US. A very much Christmas movie, Armstrong’s “Little Women” perfectly conveys the heart-warming camaraderie of the four girls, telling of their lives’ ups and downs as they try to find their way in the world torn by hardship.
Notoriously, the novel “Little Women” have been adapted quite a number of times: there were silent versions early in the 20th century, and the two major films: a 1933 version directed by George Cukor (“The Philadelphia Story” (1940)) and LeRoy’s 1949 version. The older films are beloved by many, but “Little Women” (1994) is a very deserving of its source novel film, to be placed high in the ranking of the older films. It is an engaging and clever film, which leaves a very positive impression, and it is neither too sentimental nor overbearing.
From the very first scenes, the audience becomes engrossed in the lives of the March sisters. The film starts by showing the events in the March household, unveiling the different personalities of each of the March girls (Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy) unhurriedly. Meg (Trini Alvarado) is a beautiful girl full of common sense, but we later learn that she may become overly influenced by others’ opinions. Jo (Winona Ryder) is an intellectual type, engrossed in books, dreaming of becoming a writer, but she can become too impulsive and unforgiving. Beth (Claire Danes) is “the dear of the family”, who is fond of music, and takes care of the household, but who is often ill. It is Beth that guides the other girls into being less selfish and mindful of the wishes of other people. Amy (Kirsten Dunst) is the youngest, but she already wants to grow up to become a real lady, and, her often stormy relationship with her sister Jo, teaches both the value of cherishing one another even in times of hurt. One of the story’s morals is that the girls are not perfect, but they learn to appreciate each other’s differences; learn their lessons; and strive to be the best human beings in the world which is sometimes unjust to them. The girls’ role model is their mother, whom they lovingly call Marmee (Susan Sarandon). She guides the girls to become kind and forgiving people.
Soon in the film, the entrance is made by no other than young Christian Bale (“The Portrait of a Lady“(1996)), who plays a charming boy Theodore or simply “Laurie”. He is the grandson of the March family’s rich neighbour Mr. Laurence. Laurie starts to be included in the March sisters’ family life, including their secret club meetings, and Bale really brings that extra sparkle to the film, which is already filled with much enthusiasm and cheerfulness. The drama here though is that Laurie develops feelings for Jo, who, being “a dark horse” of the family, is not too keen to settle, and, instead, dreams of independence, travel, and a career.
Later on in the film, the events start to focus more on Jo and her struggles in New York to establish herself as a writer. She meets a German professor Friedrich Bhaer (Gabriel Byrne); the two establish close friendship; and later become romantically involved. Now, the merit of the film is that it portrays so touchingly the relationship of Jo and Professor Bhaer. It is surprising, but the chemistry between Ryder and Byrne is very good. It is clear in the film that Jo and Friedrich admire each other, and take pleasure in their intellectual discussions, but it is also evident that the duo sees in each other their ideal partner. Friedrich is taken by Jo’s vivacity and her pursuit of knowledge, and Jo finds in the handsome professor, who has travelled the world, a kind and understanding soul-mate. In fact the best scenes in the film are the ones involving the duo, such as where Friedrich tells Jo that “[her] heart understood [his]” when they attend an opera, and the final scenes where Joe meets Friedrich in the rain.
No part of “Little Women” is the weakest. This is an even film, which is so pleasing, it could be re-watched multiple times. However, the film would never have probably been so good if not for its perfect cast; their charm and acting. Starting with Susan Sarandon (“Stepmom” (1999)) in the perfectly-suited role of a strong-willed, but kind mother, and finishing with the foreign attraction of Gabriel Byrne in the role of a slightly eccentric professor, the casting could not have been more perfect. Winona Ryder, who was nominated for an Academy Award for her role of Jo, is the very impersonification of the book character. Intellectual, enthusiastic, tomboyish, Ryder shines in every scene she is in, and the audience really gets to know the multiple facets of her character. In the film, Mr. Mayer says to Jo: “You should have been a lawyer, Miss March”, to which Jo replies: “I should have been a great many things, Mr. Mayer.” In times when women were still marginalised in the intellectual and business world of the society, Jo’s character finds strength and belief in herself to pursue her unconventional dreams and desires.
“Little Women” is that kind of a film which is worthy of its great source material, an engaging and heart-warming novel by Louisa May Alcott. It does justice to the book’s narrative, and also conveys the spirit and emotion of the novel through such things as the charm of its stars, the decorations and costumes, and the amazing score by Thomas Newman. 9/10