Little Women on Masterpiece
This is a review of the recent small screen mini-series adaptation of Little Women starring Maya Hawke (daughter of one of my teen crushes Ethan Hawke-how can that be?!) as Jo, Willa Fitzgerald as Meg, Kathryn Newton as Amy, Annes Elwy as Beth, Jonah Hauer-King as Laurie, Emily Watson as Marmee, Dylan Baker as Father March. Also starring Angela Lansbury as Aunt March and Michael Gambon as Mr. Laurence
This wasn't a BAD production, it just wasn't quite as faithful a narrative as I had hoped. The cinematography was beautiful- almost too beautiful at times. The light shining in on Beth during her death scene was just way too annoyingly obvious. The scene is emotional enough to understand without being hit on the head. The sets are nice but not what I expected. Orchard House looks hardly anything like Orchard House. In fact the Alcotts lived at The Wayside, next door, when the story takes place so I'll give them a pass. The scenery is very pretty but not New England. It looks too stylized and computerized. 19th-century Concord looks nothing like real Concord. I know Concord better than I know my hometown and I know there are many 19th-century buildings still standing on Main Street and the center of town that are easily identifiable. I wanted to walk with Jo down streets I know well and see buildings I know. I suppose that's a minor quibble no one but a local would complain about.
One MAJOR MAJOR MAJOR historical error occurs near the end. Jo refers to the editor of Godey's Lady's Book as a HE. The editor was still Sarah Josepha Hale, the woman responsible for "Mary Had a Little Lamb" and Thanksgiving. I'm positive Jo would know that! How could she not admire a career woman and a fellow writer even if Hale was a widow? Also under the historical accuracy note: The costumes are lovely but maybe a bit off here and there in the collar, necklines and droop of the shoulders. Perhaps on purpose to show the March family isn't wealthy because the more expensive clothing is well done. Amy on the balcony in France looks like she stepped out of Renoir's famous painting! I thought there was just a wee but too much of the unmentionables showing. Concord society would be horrified. As a historian though I DID really appreciate the costume designer showing off that period correct underwear. It looked well-done so why not show modern people what women had to wear? It sets the stage for the reform dress movement that Louisa writes about in Rose in Bloom.
What this production did differently that I did enjoy was set the story in the correct setting. It's set during the Civil War and the famous scene with Marmee reading Father's letter to the "little women" shows Mr. March off at war. It's incorrect that he's administering to a member of the U.S. Colored Troops at this time and historians are sure to call that blunder but I liked the juxtaposition of the cozy homefront and the reality of the war. It makes Father's letter that much more poignant. I also loved the scene when John Brooke marches away to war and the Marches are standing around the piano singing a lovely ballad. That was very effective in conveying the feelings of watching a loved one go off possibly never to return.
The acting was so-so. Emily Watson was great as Marmee, trying to hold her family together in difficult times. She's not saintly and perfect. She's a real woman trying to raise four adolescent girls alone and sometimes her temper frays and pops out a bit. She's very loving and kind though but some of her guidance is lacking. Her emotion when she learned Beth's secret was heartbreaking. I also liked Dylan Baker as Father. Father March is witty and a bit sarcastic. I chuckled at a few of his lines. He's kind and loving but not too indulgent. Marmee is still the main parent in this production. Mr. March mainly appears at the end of the novel (In Good Wives) and that part of the story was so rushed the actor barely got a chance to develop the character. The sisters had good chemistry. Their acting talents vary widely. Kathryn Newton was excellent as Amy. She was exactly how I imagine Amy-spoiled, snobby, selfish and wanting to be older than she is. Some may argue that she doesn't look 12 but I've seen 12 year old girls that look full grown and adults who look 12. The actresses not appearing in age order didn't bother me. My younger sister and younger cousin both look older than me.
The weak links were sadly Maya Hawke as Jo and Jonah Hauer-King as Laurie. Maya just didn't have enough punch to be a correct Jo. Much of this was due to the limited material. I didn't buy her as a 19th-century young woman struggling to hold on to her childhood in order to resist change, including the gender norms of the day. Maya's Jo is free spirited and wild but I don't think Maya's delivery really conveyed that. She does have great chemistry with Jonah though. Jo and Laurie remind me so much of Anne Shirley and Gilbert Blythe that it makes me wonder how much Lucy Maud Montgomery was inspired by and disappointed in Little Women! Laurie was absolutely dreadful. His line delivery is wooden, his accent changes and he's not the fun, playful boy who becomes the March boy. His romance with Amy is made sweet and romantic to be believable for a modern audience who knows the only reason he married Amy is because she was the only available March sister. Amy marries him for comfort and security and they understand each other's superficiality. This production cuts out the reasons for them getting together-he gives her a hard time about her flirting too much in Europe and she gives him a hard time about being lazy. He runs off to work hard to be worthy of her. This was all glossed over in favor of a sweet little romance.
The other two sisters were nice. I liked sweet Meg and gentle Beth but I don't think Beth's kindness or unselfishness was really fully conveyed. It's so hard to judge acting when the script is lacking. I think both young actresses did a fine job.
Angela Lansbury is one of the finest English/American actresses ever and she shines here as Aunt March. This is the first time I've seen the similarities between Aunt March and her namesake Jo! They're both stubborn and feisty, independent women in their own ways. The pet parrot is hysterical! Michael Gambon doesn't have much to do here. My favorite role of his was in Elizabeth Gaskell's "Wives and Daughters" and here Mr. Laurence is a very similar character to Squire Hamley. His stubborn pride nearly costs him his family. It takes the warmth and kindness of the March family to thaw old Mr. Laurence and show he has a heart after all. I didn't agree with the choice to not bring up Laurie's backstory and how Mr. Laurence became estranged from his only child. (See also "Wives and Daughters" on how NOT to be a parent of a stubborn adult child). is nice as Professor Baher. He looks too young to be the old man all readers make him out to be but I doubt Professor Baher actually is old-he just seems to be.
The story cut out too many important bits. It focused on the sisters and their relationship with a little bit of emphasis on how Marmee raised her girls. While Marmee is shown giving books to the girls for Christmas, Pilgrim's Progress is cut out. I probably would have removed that too for a modern audience but it serves to showcase the March family values. Another important scene that is left out is when the girls prepare a Christmas surprise for Marmee. One other bit that I wish was left in to show the March family's beliefs is when the girls are left alone to play housekeeping and Jo makes a huge mess. I did like how Marmee has to explain to Jo how she keeps her temper. That's also important. More fun parts that were removed include Jo's play the girls perform at Christmas. This is so much fun and shows the personalities of the sisters very well and foreshadows the "blood and thunder" tales Jo will later write. The Pickwick Club was also cut out. Again this shows the reader the girls' personalities and introduces Laurie as one of them. The ending was way too rushed. I also didn't care for the modern sounding background music.
Final verdict: This was too slow to be appealing to younger viewers and cut out too many important parts but is overall enjoyable enough. 3 out of 5 stars ***
Photos taken from The Internet Movie Database. Copyright belongs to PBS and BBC.