One of the main handicaps in watching the latest incarnation of this classic novel is the difficulty in recognizing that any of these “girls” is meant to be truly young. Amy, the youngest sister, looks as developed and fully grown as Beth, Jo and Meg. Because of this, the audience has no way of contextualizing her behavior as that of the little girl who is frequently excluded from some activities because of her tender age. It’s impossible to understand her unforgivable and un-fixable act without recognizing that it’s driven by the uncontrollable impulse of a child, not yet a teenager. Serendipitously, the viewer has a chance to see what I mean by watching the 1994 version of Little Women which will be on Showtime Showcase at 7 pm tonite - Friday, Jan 3rd. Record it.
I saw this before I went to see Greta Gerwig’s version and cannot recommend the former highly enough. It’s a spirited version in which you see the girls put on plays written by Jo and costumed by her - a reminder of how young people entertained themselves before their heads were buried in phones and virtual everything. That cast is brilliant - Winona Ryder, Claire Danes, Trini Alvarado as the older March sisters and a young, adorable Kirsten Dunst as Amy. In Gerwig’s version, the role of Laurie (Theodore Laurence) is played by Timothee Chalamet, an effete actor who looks younger than the girls and as gay as he was in Call Me By My Name. By contrast, in the 1994 rendition, his role is played by a handsome and very masculine Christian Bale with another important male part given to Gabriel Byrne The private dance that is done by Jo and Laurie is a romantic connection in the earlier film whereas in the update, Saiorse Ronan and Timothee merely let loose without any emotional imprint on the audience.
In Gerwig’s version, Laura Dern plays Marmee with little or no inflection and the same can be said for Meryl Streep in a cameo as the wealthy March aunt who here will be remembered for a wig that looks borrowed from a sheep or a British barrister. After watching Maggie Smith perfect this persona in years of Downton Abbey, the audience needs to hear sharper wit from Meryl’s character - as is, she adds little or nothing but a future plot point.
As for Saoirse Ronan as Jo, she’s too angry too much of the time as if we needed to visualize how difficult it was to be a woman writer in the 19th century. In actuality, Louisa May Alcott enjoyed a successful career as a writer of Gothic pulp fiction, a fictionalized book about her experiences as an army nurse in the Civil War and many sequels to the very popular Little Women. Between those careers, her involvement with the Sufragette movement, her friendships with many of the intellectual movers and shakers of her day, and her raising the child of her dead sister, it’s unlikely that she had the time or inclination for contemporary hissy fits. Alcott deserves more substance and less treacle - you’ll see the difference when you watch the 1994 version.
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