Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Classics: A Review of Little Women By Lauren Ennis

With each passing season come changes that carry the potential to alter the very fabric of our lives. These changes can bring us to soaring heights and devastating lows, but through it all one thing remains constant; the importance of those closest to us. In Louisa Mae Alcott’s classic novel Little Women the four March sisters encounter professional and personal struggle, triumphs, and tragedy with one constant remaining in their lives; their relationships with each other. Although each pursues a unique path in life, Jo, Meg, Beth, and Amy ultimately learn that it’s their common bond that provides them with the strength and courage to follow their dreams.
Kodak moments that predate even cameras

The story begins in the midst of the Civil War as Marmee (Susan Sarandon) struggles to raise her four daughters while her husband is on the front lines as a Union chaplain. Although their circumstances have been significantly reduced by war-time hardship, the March women manage to create their own light in the face of their darkest fears as they devote themselves to helping others and various creative outlets. The outside world soon enters their family circle with the arrival of orphaned neighbor Theodore ‘Laurie’ Lawrence (Christian Bale) and his staid tutor John Brook (Eric Stoltz) who introduce both friendship and romance to the girls’ lives. As the war draws to a close the sisters are each drawn to different paths with Meg choosing a traditional role as wife and mother and Beth remaining dedicated to helping their mother at home while Jo and Amy travel in pursuit of respective careers as a writer and a painter. Through the years, each of the girls faces unique hardships as well as tragedy, all of which ultimately serve to reinforce and strengthen their bond with one another.

While the 1868 novel has been adapted numerous times, the 1994 adaption sets itself apart through a fresh retelling, which still honors the tale’s historical setting. Previous adaptations tend to portray the story as children’s fare with the girls’ conflicts and youthful enthusiasm playing as quaint and saccharine, which in turns makes it even more difficult for audiences to relate to characters whose lives are drastically different from our own. In this most recent adaptation, however, each character is completely three dimensional with their own strengths, flaws, and quirks that make each of them, and the world that they inhabit, come alive. The script successfully details the evolution of each character as they come of age in response to the changes of the Civil War and Reconstruction with a nuance and naturalness that previous adaptations sorely lack. As a result, the struggles and triumphs that each character faces carries an emotional weight and urgency that ensures the story resonates with modern audiences. The film also succeeds in the way in which it balances the social norms of family values, restraint, and discretion that the plot hinges upon while still nodding to the ways in which the March family were very much ahead of their time. The script offers a particular freshness through its portrayal of Marmee’s efforts to instill self-sufficiency and self-value in her daughters even in the midst of the gender oppression of 1860’s society; lessons that remain just as crucial for girls today. 
A portrait of the artist as a young woman

Through its attention to the details of both character and setting the 1994 adaptation is a must see for both devotees of the novel and newcomers looking for a family film that will truly appeal to all ages.
While the intelligent and emotionally honest script lends the film a strong foundation, the film would not possess its enduring power without an equally excellent cast. Susan Sarandon brings an effective combination of tender love and iron will to her role as the resilient Marmee, leaving little wonder as to why her little women look to her for strength and guidance even as they enter adulthood. Trini Alvarado brings depth and subtlety to her role as the conservative Meg, bringing a complexity to a character who is often reduced to a bland ‘good girl’ to contrast the rebelliousness of Jo and Amy. Similarly Claire Danes adds genuine warmth and a kindness that radiates from the screen to her portrayal of Beth, lending credibility to a character who is written as too good to be true. Kirsten Dunst brings a refreshing sense of mischief and fun to her performance as Amy, lending her role such charm that it’s all too easy to forgive Amy’s childish vanity and selfishness. Samantha Mathis portrays adult Amy with a ladylike propriety that masks the frivolity and materialism that Amy struggles to repress as she enters womanhood. Winona Ryder lights up the screen with an intelligence, originality, and vibrancy that brings one of literature’s most beloved heroines bursting off of the page and steals the film in each of her scenes. The men in the film hold their own and make the most of what easily could have been thankless roles with standout performances. Eric Stoltz infuses his performance as the reserved Mr. Brooke with a dry wit and sensitivity that brings a level of humanity to a character who is often reduced to a stock love interest. Similarly Gabriel Byrne portrays Jo’s eventual love interest, Professor Bhaer, with an intelligence, maturity, and thoughtfulness that leaves little wonder as to how he is able to attract the stubbornly independent Jo. Last, but certainly not least, Christian Bale is absolutely charming as Laurie, infusing the boy next door with an irresistible roguishness that may leave viewers just as confused as to why Jo rejects him as Alcott’s first readers were.

Much like the novel it is based upon, 1994’s Little Women is nothing short of a modern classic. Little Women is an apt example of what family dramas and coming of age tales should strive to be as it brings to mind the extraordinary gifts that even the most seemingly ordinary life holds. Through its modern edged script and multi-faceted performances the film brings fresh life into the enduring tale, reminding us all that regardless of how much the world has changed the value of family is still as crucial as ever. As Amy says, we’ll all grow up someday, and while it helps to know what we want, the film aptly shows us that it is essential that we recognize what we have.
All for one and one for all!

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