Gillian Armstrong, the director of Little Women, isn't a daring, kinetic film artist, like Martin Scorsese or Peter Jackson or Jane Campion. She's a storyteller of a purer, less flashy sort -- like William Wyler, George Stevens and other directors from Hollywood's studio era.
Armstrong has faith in the strength of her screenplay, adapted from Louisa May Alcott's novel about a family of women growing up in 19th-century New Hampshire, and in the understated skill of her actors. She intuitively understands and appreciates what makes this material so appealing, and she doesn't feel the need to rework it in her own creative image.
Instead, without ever showing off, she exerts strong but nuanced control over every frame of Little Women, so that the story just seems to tell itself -- effortlessly, organically, like a flower unfolding. She serves the material with humility and care. The result is an old-fashioned film in the best sense.
In the most confident and effortless performance of her career, Winona Ryder stars as Jo March, a headstrong, artistically gifted tomboy in a family full of women. The March family isn't poor, but it has fallen on hard times; their father is away at war, and the time period makes it difficult for women to support themselves. And their mother (Susan Sarandon) is a social activist of such staunch moral fiber that she even gives away the family's Christmas dinner to a poorer family in their town.
Jo, a would-be actress and writer, is the fire and spirit of the March family, and she's the only sibling who rarely expresses self-doubt. She has an older sister, Meg (Trini Alvarado), who seems spiritually attuned to Jo's world-view, though Meg secretly wonders what it would be like to be rich and have no concern for anything besides pleasure and leisure. Jo's two younger sisters, Beth (Claire Danes) and Amy (Kirsten Dunst), are more troubled, partly because the older girls seem so vigorous and outgoing and serenely poised. In contrast, the two younger Marches construct fantasy worlds for themselves, publishing makeshift news-papers and putting on made-up plays in the attic.
Little Women is about the getting of wisdom; it's about the difficulty of growing up without losing touch with your innocence and optimism and basic faith in the goodness of the world. The narrative tests the March clan in a variety of ways -- some unexpected, others inevitable, all painful. It would not be accurate to say that the Marches triumph over adversity; instead, it takes all of their energy and commitment and love as a family to merely survive it.
The definition of nostalgia is memory unclouded by unpleasantness; because Little Women acknowledges suffering, and how tough it is to endure without becoming embittered or cynical, it never crosses the line into outright sentimentality. It's a very emotional movie, but it isn't sappy. It's alternately tender and tough.
Gillian Armstrong is a dexterous filmmaker who can pluck an audience's emotions like a skilled harpist. She isn't shy about allowing us to immerse ourselves in the story, to feel the pain of bad fortune and the exhilaration of success with the same intensity as her characters. And she has a streak of pure showmanship, too; she knows when to cut to a crowd-pleasing close-up of a baby or a kitten, and when to go for a big, tight, luminously beautiful shot of a bedridden March sister's tear-streaked face.
But you can laugh and cry at this film without guilt, because Armstrong has taken you so deep inside the March women's inner lives that the emotions summoned by the movie never feel cheap or forced. They're earned through dedication, intelligence and love.
The majority of big-budget Hollywood films these days are male-driven, with women included as spouses, girlfriends, cardboard villains or extras. It's rare that a feature film examines the everyday, timeless concerns of women in a domestic setting -- schooling, friendship, romance, maturity -- with so much precision and such a remarkable lack of condescension.
It's worth mentioning, too, how wonderful it is simply to see so many women on-screen at the same time, huddled together around a dinner table or a piano or in front of a fireplace, talking, laughing, singing, occasionally crying on one another's shoulders. The film's director of photography, Geoffrey Simpson, looks deeply into their faces and draws out a natural radiance; some of his images are so reverent and beautiful you'd swear you can see the characters' souls radiating from their eyes.
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I felt the same way about Go Fish and Ruby in Paradise, which also looked past artificial and arbitrary standards of glamour and found universal beauty in women's faces -- tall, short, thin, fat, young, old. The look of Armstrong's movie correlates with the theme of the novel: that time and experience deepen the beauty, strength and grace of women, that the crows' feet around Susan Sarandon's eyes, and the deep lines in the face of the March girls' elderly aunt (the hilariously crotchety Mary Wickes), are the imprints of all the wondrous and transformative things they've witnessed over the years.
This film loves women, loves storytelling and loves life. It respects its characters, its source material and its audience, and its inherent melodrama is ennobled by the scrupulous intelligence of its director. It's a classic.
Directed by Gillian Armstrong. With Winona Ryder, Trini Alvarado, Kirsten Dunst and Susan Sarandon.