Fresh from Thelma & Louise, Susan Sarandon takes on another feminist icon as the March family matriarch in 1994’s shot at Louisa May Alcott’s classic.
That Little Women has been filmed 7 times is testament to its enduring themes and characters, with so many stories contained in Alcott’s novels that each adaptation can put the emphasis on different episodes. This one hits largely the same beats as Greta Gerwig’s 2019 version, albeit chronologically and with a generous helping of ’90s sentimentality. It’s another supersonic flight through Concord’s seasonal chapters, beautifully designed and lovingly directed by Gillian Armstrong.
Every scene looks like a painting, accompanied by Thomas Newman’s Christmassy score to create an atmosphere that’s warm and inviting if altogether more old-fashioned than last year’s fresh, spirited take on the material. The theatricality makes you doubly appreciate Gerwig’s deft touch in avoiding the schmaltzy pitfalls that could so easily wrong-foot the March sisters, and Armstrong impressively sidesteps these too by preserving the lightness of Alcott’s writing.
There are great turns from writerly Jo (Winona Ryder), actorly Meg (Trini Alvarado – a double for Andie MacDowell) and lime-wielding Amy (Kirsten Dunst), though blighted Beth (Claire Danes) often looks more simple than sickly. Preparing for his famous role as another rich orphan, Christian Bale plays Laurie – it’s not quite as weird as it sounds, until he threatens to kiss 12-year-old Amy. Thankfully Dunst is replaced by the older (and nondescript) Samantha Mathis before that occurs. As the old saying goes: when life gives you limes, make out with Batman.
Where certain details stick closer to the text than Gerwig strayed (Gabriel Byrne is nearer to Friedrich’s age than 2019’s younger portrayal), the ’90s version also has a touch of unnecessary invention. It gains nothing by shoehorning discussion of civil rights and women’s suffrage into a single scene. Again this serves only to highlight how nicely Gerwig modernised the story by integrating Alcott’s real experiences in getting her book published, which works because it actually happened.
Overall this adaptation works where it counts: fine relationships, soul-stirring emotion and lessons in “honour, kindness and moral courage” that never sour.