Sunday 2 February 2020

Movie Review: Little Women (1994)

An amiable adaptation of the 1868 Louisa May Alcott novel, Little Women strives for a cozy tone of sisterly bonding.

Concord, Massachusetts during the Civil War. The March family's financial fortunes take a downturn when father goes off to serve in the war. Marmee (Susan Sarandon) nevertheless stays calm as she instills charitable values in her daughters Jo (Winona Ryder), Meg (Trini Alvarado), Amy (Kirsten Dunst) and Beth (Claire Danes).

The girls meet next-door neighbour Theodor Laurence (Christian Bale). Despite coming from wealth he becomes a constant companion of the sisters and starts to fall in love with Jo. But she is an aspiring writer more interested in starting a career than settling down. With Meg attracting the interest of Theodor's tutor John Brooke (Eric Stoltz), Jo sets off to New York where she meets professor Friedrich Bhaer (Gabriel Byrne), while the grown-up Amy (Samantha Mathis) heads to Paris with the elderly Aunt March (Mary Wickes).

45 years after the 1949 version starring June Allyson, Hollywood returned with the fifth big screen adaptation of the classic story, and the first to be directed by a woman. Gillian Armstrong aims for and generally achieves a Normal Rockwell-inspired mood, the script by Robin Swicord structured as a mostly quaint and family-oriented coming-of-age story.

Which is both an asset and a burden. Little Women never threatens to evolve into anything other than charming storytelling, often flirting with antiquated. The film always looks gorgeous, but also emit the whiff of staginess and almost perfect posing into just the right angle with fireplace lighting to achieve the nostalgic painting resonance.

Armstrong effectively uses the two hours of running time, every incident in the ups and downs of the March family given its due, but without bursting through a fairly narrow band of emotional involvement. The four girls remain short of memorable, just missing a cutting edge or breakout moment, all in favour of calm whimsy.

The talented young cast perform admirably within the confines of the material. Winona Ryder's Jo deserves more bite than provided by Swicord's script, while Christian Bale glides through the film with an appropriate reserve, a young man caught in love with a woman deciding her potential career matters more.

Capable but less than notable, Little Women is faithfully decorous.

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