Rated PG. Running time: 1 hour 47 min.
Our content advisories (1-10): Violence 0; Language 0; Sex 4/Nudity 1.
Our star rating (1-5): 5
It is fitting that the director, producer, and screen writer of the fourth version of Louisa May Alcott’s classic novel are all women Australian Gillian Armstrong (My Brilliant Career), Denise DiNovi, and Robin Swicord. Their faithful adaptation of this timeless story of a strong mother raising her four daughters while the father is away fighting during the Civil War is a lyrical tribute to sister and motherhood filled with some incredibly tender moments. Winona Ryder’s Jo need take no back seat to either Katherine Hepburn’s or June Allyson’s, and Claire Danes’ is the best Beth yet.
Miss Ryder is attracting most of the attention as the feisty sister determined to make it as a writer in a man’s world, but this version especially makes it clear that the role of the mother is a crucial one, and that Susan Sarandon is more than up to the job. Her Mrs. March is the calm at the center of a vortex of activity of her imaginative daughters, bringing peace between angry Jo and jealous Amy at one point, lifting the spirit of a despondent daughter, and forging steel into their background with her philosophy that despite the world’s injustice, a woman, her daughters in particular, can forge their own destiny if they live up to their dreams. She might live in the 19th century, but her example and philosophy would serve us well at the close of the 20th also. Thus it was good to see so many mothers and daughters (and, I would gather grandmothers) at the showing I attended.
However, I would hasten to add, this should not be regarded as a “woman’s (or girl’s) film.” Its themes of love, family solidarity, and courage give it a universal appeal. Christian Bale is fine as Laurie, the neighbor infatuated at first with Jo. Eric Stoltz manages to make the priggish tutor John Brooke into a likeable person who deserves the love of Meg, and Gabriel Byrne’s shy Prof. Friedrich Bhaer is just the kind, considerate suitor any parent would hope a daughter would bring home. Thus there is something for everyone in this intelligently made, truly inspiring cinematic ode to the family in general, and to the roles of women in particular.
Good Teaching/Preaching moments: 1. The girls decide to share their breakfast with the poor German family: what better way to celebrate Christmas? 2. Little Amy’s initial (and understandable) reluctance to part with her rare Christmas treat: the power of the goodness of others to influence us in choosing to do good; 3. A moment of grace the elderly neighbor presents Amy with his piano; Reconciliation: Mrs. March’s words to the warring Amy and Jo.