"Little Women" gets a lot of credit for what it promises -- a new world for women -- but not enough for what it offers: Splendidly constructed 19th-century melodrama.
Fortunately, its promise and its artistry are on display in the Gilliam Armstrong version of the Louisa May Alcott autobiographical classic, which opens tomorrow with Winona Ryder as Jo March. It's a terrific movie, for men and women, big and small.
The novel is so beloved to American women that most have their own private Jo March, who just happens to look (fancy that!) a lot like them. I leave to each of them to determine if Ryder's Jo is up to their fantasies. The larger point, and the only one I am qualified to make, is that she's certainly up to the movie's demands.
Ryder's Jo is less tomboy than earlier versions, such as Katharine Hepburn's 1933 edition. But she's a vivid, almost quicksilver presence, whose dark, tiny eyes sparkle with intelligence and whose mobile face shimmies through moods without a second's worth of hesitation or reticence.
Jo, the analogue to Alcott herself, is a familiar figure in American literature by type but not by gender: she's a version of all those boy dreamers who looked at the stars or the horizon and let their imaginations soar. It was, of course, Alcott who broke the news that you didn't have to be a boy to have dreams. But Jo dominates the little women of her family with quick wit, solid values and imagination, a task perhaps made easier by the isolation of the family from society. The only man in their world, their father, is off fighting the Civil War.
In the cloistering warmth of Orchard House, just outside Concord in the plush demi-Eden of Massachusetts, Jo and her sisters Beth, Amy and Meg struggle to find themselves under the watchful eye of their wise mother, Marmee, played by that eternal Mother Jones of the American cinema, Susan Sarandon.
Jo yearns for a literary career; by night, she toils away on melodramatic stories that nobody will publish, or pushes her sisters through elaborate amateur dramatics, in which she gets all the good roles. The movie stays largely with her, following as she -- this must have stunned them way back in the 19th century! -- eventually ventures to New York in search of a career rather than a husband. But so seductive is the sweep of the story that it has enough room to bring in the counter-balancing drama of each sister's life. Meg (Trini Alvarado) is the oldest, but she's shy and self-doubting and eventually marries a dull tutor; Beth (Claire Danes) is less well imagined and of the four registers the least; peppery little Amy, played as a child by Kirsten Dunst and as a young woman by Samantha Mathis, is the family beauty and knows that she will marry a rich man.
I was struck all the way through by how neatly screenwriter Robin Swicord preserves so much of the novel while capturing its sense of warmth and its sense of deep female bonding. Perhaps this shouldn't have been a surprise; Swicord wrote, many years back, an unheralded but excellent little film called "Shag," which evoked the same phenomenon back in South Carolina in the early '60s and had an equally pervasive sense of female culture.
The only disappointments in the sweep of "Little Women" are a few casting weaknesses. The movie loses much when the fiery Dunst gives way to the more sedate but sexually mature Mathis, although the romantic permutations involving Laurie (Christian Bale), the boy next door who originally loves Jo and then courts Amy in Europe, are still the film's most satisfying stroke.
Lastly, I'm not so sure about Gabriel Byrne as the exiled German intellectual who eventually courts Jo. This swaggering actor has so much joie de vivre that I was always getting an ironic buzz off his appearance: I kept expecting him to invite Jo in to look at his etchings over a little schnapps. Byrne is possibly too sexy for the part of the German philosopher and his presence somewhat mis-wires the relationship.
Still, the best part of "Little Women" is that it tells a great big story.
Starring Winona Ryder and Susan Sarandon
Directed by Gillian Armstrong
Released by Columbia