Directed by Gillian Armstrong. Starring Winona Ryder, Trini Alvarado, Kirsten Dunst, Claire Danes, Susan Sarandon, Samantha Mathis, Christian Bale, Mary Wickes, Gabriel Byrne, Eric Stoltz. (1994, PG, 115 min.)
REVIEWED By Alison Macor, Fri., Dec. 23, 1994
Using the term feminist in this day and age is surely grounds for some kind of punishment, but Little Women is certainly a feminist text in the best sense of the word: Women are depicted as individuals, striving to make lives for themselves that best express their talents and desires. This idea comes through effectively in Australian director Armstrong's (My Brilliant Career, Mrs. Soffel) version of Little Women, based on the 1868 novel by Louisa May Alcott. With some trepidation, I went to see this most recent remake of Little Women; however, I was pleasantly surprised to see that Alcott's themes of familial love and individuality play quite well in the 1990s. Armstrong presents a warm, funny, and believable rendering of the March family living at Orchard House during the Civil War in New England. Remaking this film is not just a question of spinning an updated tale or overhauling outdated ideas; Little Women is a story treasured by many, and George Cukor's 1933 version starring Katharine Hepburn as Jo is probably the most beloved of the four film versions already in existence. Armstrong took on more than a remake; she tackled an American institution. With spirited performances by all, Armstrong's Little Women stands on its own as an engaging narrative with lively characters who face issues not completely foreign to modern little women. The decision by Jo (Ryder) to pursue her career rather than marriage to best friend Laurie (Bale) is perhaps more real today than it may have been in the late 1800s. The separation of a family is equally compelling as this, too, is a situation unbounded by time. All of the performances are noteworthy, but a few actors stand out for their ability to shine in small roles. Claire Danes (of television's My So-Called Life) as the fragile Beth epitomizes incandescence, and Aunt March's (Wickes) wry advice adds a welcome dryness to a story that teeters, at times, on the brink of sugary oversentimentality. Sarandon's Marmee practically glows with strength, but her humor saves the character from martyrdom. As for Ryder's Jo, her performance in the early part of the film is a bit too wacky. Jo's unique spirit and talent come through more effectively in the latter part of Little Women, and Ryder's rapport with Gabriel Byrne, who plays Professor Bhaer, effectively transcends the actors' age difference (which isn't as potentially problematic in print as it is on film). Despite the film's season-spanning time period, Little Women suits its holiday release date. It is a tale of love, strength, and self-esteem, sentiments which rarely go out of fashion.