Masterpiece updates “Little Women” for a new generation


BLU-RAY REVIEW

(left to right) Willa Fitzgerald as Meg, Kathryn Newton as Amy, Annes Elwy as Beth, and Maya Hawke as Jo. (Masterpiece PBS)

"MASTERPIECE “LITTLE WOMEN”


Blu-ray, DVD; 2018; TV-PG; streaming via Amazon Video, Google Play, iTunes, YouTube


Best extra: “Becoming a Woman, Then and Now”


MANY BOOKS – such as “Les Misérables,” “A Christmas Carol,” “Jane Eyre,” nearly every Sherlock Holmes story and anything by Jane Austen – have been filmed again and again for theater and home entertainment.


Louisa May Alcott’s “Little Women” has been adapted more than a dozen times, most notably in 1933 with Katharine Hepburn; in 1949 with Elizabeth Taylor; and in 1994 with Winona Ryder, Kirsten Dunst, Claire Danes, Susan Sarandon, Christian Bale and Gabriel Byrne. Every generation gets a version with the latest stars although little changes in the telling of it.


Now Masterpiece puts their expertise into a three-part miniseries starring Maya Hawke, Kathryn Newton, Willa Fitzgerald and Annes Elwy as the March sisters, Jo, Amy, Meg and Beth. Emily Watson co-stars as ‘Marmee’ March, with Dylan Baker as the father, Mr. March, who has a stronger presence here. Jonah Hauer-King plays the nice rich boy next door, Laurie Laurence.

Alcott, with her progressive upbringing and attitude towards personal empowerment, might have approved of the latest approach and its team of female co-creators.


Marmee March played by Emily Watson.
Amy March played by Kathryn Newton.
Beth March played by Welsh actress Annes Elwy.
Jo March played by newcomer Maya Hawke.
Meg March played by Willa Fitzgerald.

Alcott’s sisters and parents were the models for the March family, who encouraged their girls to think and act for themselves, says Jan Turnquist, Executive Director of Orchard House museum, the Alcott home in Concord, Massachusetts. It was unusual for the time, but the father, Bronson Alcott, was an unusual man. He began the Concord School of Philosophy in 1879 at his home. Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau were neighbors, friends and frequent visitors. Writer Olivia Milch reports Alcott invented recess, and was the first to ask students to raise their hand and participate in classes. “He believed children should be active in their own development,” a revolutionary idea at the time, she says in “Visit Orchard House,” one of three bonus features in the PBS set.


Co-written by Heidi Thomas of “Call the Midwife,” and directed by Vanessa Caswill, the miniseries follows that lead. At its heart, the story is still about family. Set during the Civil War, Marmee March is virtually a single mother. She must raise her four daughters almost by herself since her husband is away, caring for the wounded. She’s holding the family together “in an uncertain world,” with “four emotionally charged teenagers, more or less on her own, without masses of money,” Executive Producer Sophie Gardiner says in “Becoming a Woman, Then and Now.”


The story follows the family through the girls’ teen years into young womanhood, marriage, the birth of Meg’s children, and death. Remember that episode in “Friends,” when Joey (Matt LeBlanc) is advised to “put the book in the freezer,” as he nears the ending of “Little Women”? Thomas and co-writer Rainer Stolle provide a different take from Marmee’s point of view.

“As I’m learning [the part of] Marmee, and getting to know her better, I keep going, ‘God, I wish I could be as good a mom as she is,’” Watson says in “Then and Now.” “She doesn’t control them, she lets them make mistakes. She stands back and she waits for them to come to her.”


Yet in that particular event, Marmee breaks, letting us into her heart and anguish. It’s one of the most emotional and powerful scenes in the series.





VIDEO

“Little Women” substitutes Ireland for Massachusetts, using the BBC’s outstanding resources to create period accurate settings and costumes. Even the garden outside the March home is styled after American homes of the 1800s. It looks beautiful and authentic in PBS’s 1080p transfer (1.78:1 ratio).


“When I was researching ‘Little Women’ I had the great opportunity to work with the executive director of Louisa May Alcott’s Orchard House in Concord,” Costume Designer Eimer Ní Mhaoldomhnaigh says in “Creating the World of ‘Little Women.’”


One big difference is that petticoats were substituted for the crinolines and hoop skirts, which were prevalent at the time. Still, every dress and suit from shoes to hats, gloves and coats maintain period color and weave. Texture and patterns are beautifully detailed. Complexions look natural.


“One of the things that’s very important to me in telling a truthful story was to empower the women in it by not making them [look like] ‘dollies,’” Director Vanessa Caswell says in “Creating the World of ‘Little Women.’”


AUDIO

“Little Women” gets a basic DTS-MA 2.0 track. It delivers clear dialogue, but little in the way of ambient sound and effects. The score is by Stuart Earl, who composed music for the Agatha Christie miniseries “And Then There Were None,” starring Charles Dance, and an episode of Netflix’s “Black Mirror.”


PBS TRAILER




EXTRAS

There’s a lot of information and interviews packed into three featurettes. “Creating the World of ‘Little Women’” is a good making-of, while “Becoming a Woman, Then and Now” compares Alcott and her childhood to the new interpretation.


Women of the time were basically the property of their fathers and husbands, and subjected to strict moral laws. Education was discouraged if not forbidden; they could not own or inherit property if there was any other male heir. Forget about voting.


“Doctors at the time also felt that if women used their minds too much, it could affect [their health]” and not in a good way,” Dylan Baker (Mr. March) says.

Alcott’s book took a different approach. “It’s about discovering who you want to be in your heart, and then discovering who society thinks you should be” and going for it, says Kathryn Newton (Amy).


“Visit Orchard House” was filmed at Alcott’s Massachusetts' home, and hosted by its executive director Jan Turnquist, with interviews from visitors who describe the impact “Little Women” had on their lives.


There are times when the miniseries is somewhat uneven, perhaps since the emotional cues are different from earlier adaptations. It’s all good – learning more about the parents, seeing them interact with their daughters. Watching how the relationship between Jo, Amy and Laurie develops, and the acceptance of Beth’s illness is a different, but not unwelcome view of Alcott’s timeless story. “Little Women” remains as good today as it ever was.


- Kay Reynolds



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