This is definitely not your mother’s “Little Women.” this one begins with titillating views of young girls giggling. You see a girl’s bare feet as she steps out of her underclothes, but for all that, the first words are “Jo, those are the kitchen scissors.” The girls are cutting off locks of hair–not to give a beau, but to send to their father who is away at war,serving as an Army chaplain (Dylan Baker) and tending the wounded (in this case a black man) during the Civil War. It is Christmas and the March family has agreed that this year there will be no gifts, but Marmee (Emily Watson) is devoted go charity and even their Christmas meal will be given away.
Just because there are no presents doesn’t mean there aren’t any parties, but there is a problem. “You can’t go to a party without any gloves,” one sister advises Jo. She used hers to mop up lemonade a season or two ago and she failed to clean them.
What you can appreciate about the previous movies about “Little Women” is how quickly they introduce and establish the characters. This isn’t true with this version and the girls seem too close in age. At the beginning of the novel Meg is 16; Jo, 15; Beth, 13 and Amy, 12. Winona Ryder was 22 when she played Jo. June Allyson was in her thirties when she was Jo in the 1949 version. Elizabeth Taylor was 17.
Maya Hawke, the daughter of Uma Thurman and Ethan Hawke, 19, plays the tomboy Jo. Annes Elwy, whose age isn’t disclosed, is the sensitive, ill-fated Beth. Kathryn Newton, 21, is the pretty, often vain and selfish Amy. Willa Fitzgerald, is also age unknown, is Meg, the oldest girl who is the perfect domestic woman. Here, except for Jo, you slowly realize who is who. Amy is blonde and in pigtails.
Laurie, or Theodore Laurence is introduced as a boy alone in a large house with an elderly uncle who admonishes him, “No one plays that piano any more, I don’t permit it,” when Laurie plays the upright piano. The uncle, Mr. Lawrence (Michael Gambon), has a backstory but it will take one of the March sisters to bring it out and calm his hurt.
This episode ends with Marmee heading to see her ill husband in Washington with Jo giving her great sacrifice and the four girls left alone under the care of Hannah.
In the second episode, Jo is writing to Marmee and Amy is losing her braids. Meg is going to a ball because another girl has gotten engaged and she will be going in the “shabby old tarlatan.” While Meg gets a taste of high society, she is indignant when she learns of gossip regarding her mother and the Laurences. Yet things quicken. Now not only is the father ill, but Beth becomes ill and Amy is sent away to live with Aunt March. Here is where we get to see much more of Angela Lansbury. The romance between Amy has inklings here.
What is clearer here is the darkness of the times, where the poor could easily die and without charity, might be without the slightest second thought for the well-to-do. Jo was Alcott’s ideal woman and ahead of her time. Marmee wants real love for all her girls and she and her husband insist on a three-year courtship. There may be some wisdom here for the easy hookup generation.
Even Meg has what Aunt March calls the “spice of perversity” and this version is best at capturing the heartbreak of Laurie and the softening into understanding between him and Mr. Laurence, the courtship between Amy and Laurie, and the tragic death of Beth. The adaptation has at that point mostly left behind the flirty focus on undergarments of yesteryear. We get to see more of Europe and both Laurie and Amy as failed artists but more graceful and artistic at living. This version avoids the cute misunderstanding that leads to a romantic denouement used at the end of the 1949 and 1993 versions.