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Terrific New Adaptation of Little Women Reminds Us of This Story’s Greatness

“Love is a great beautifier,” Louisa May Alcott wrote in “Little Women,” her 19th century novel about a family of sisters, their admirable parents, and the men who wander across their paths. The March girls—affectionate and steady Meg, stubborn and imaginative Jo, gentle and timid Beth, and dramatic and vain Amy—have maintained a reliable presence in American cultural consciousness ever since, with a number of adaptations for film, television stage, and opera. Love is a great beautifier, and over the years, it’s colored this story, for this writer at least, with a kind of sepia-toned affection. The March sisters have become a fondly remembered avatars for their boldfaced traits, loveable and larger than life—a state that’s been somewhat reinforced in the many adaptations in which they’re centered. Scenes, not events. Characters, not people. Dolls, not women, little or otherwise.

Heidi Thomas and Vanessa Caswill’s adaptation changes all of that. This “Little Women,” a co-production between BBC Drama and PBS’s “Masterpiece,” is full of living, breathing, flawed, messy women. It’s no surprise that Thomas, who created “Call the Midwife,” would be so thoroughly devoted to making sure her characters stand on the firm, realistic ground. That’s not to say this take on Alcott’s story is dour or gritty in any way—like “Call the Midwife,” this is a production that’s deeply affectionate toward its characters, the lives they lead, and the time and place from which they’ve emerged. But none of that fondness, none of the sweetness, renders the March women (or the women of “Call the Midwife”) anything less than fully, achingly human. It’s Alcott by way of Linklater, Lonergan, or Ozu, and it is terrific.

Meg (Willa Fitzgerald), Jo (Maya Hawke), Beth (Annes Elwy), and Amy (Kathryn Newton) are sisters. The oldest, Meg, is fast approaching womanhood; the youngest, Amy, is only inches into her adolescence. Regardless of age, they share burdens both common and uncommon to women their age: a father (Dylan Baker) at war, a few curls burned off, a mother (Emily Watson) disappointed, a lingering illness, a judgmental aunt (Angela Lansbury) who means well, low coffers, hurt pride, idle gossip, pickled limes. You get the idea. They’re encouraged to bear these trials with dignity and kindness by their parents, and to work to master their flaws. So they do, and so they change, and grow up.

That’s it, really. “Little Women” is the story of how the March sisters grow up. In the hands of Thomas and Caswill, they do so believably, and that means with plenty of stumbles and the occasional moment of ill-grace. I can pay this adaptation no greater compliment to say that Elwy’s Beth March is more than a kindly tragic figure here—and yes, I’ll refrain from further spoilers about that, if you can have spoilers for a book that’s been out for a century and a half. Suffice it to say that this Beth does more than pull on the heartstrings, struggling in many of her scenes to master a tendency often summed up as ‘shy.’ This Beth isn’t shy, she’s anxious and afraid, and watching Elwy guide her character through both mastering and failing to master that fear is a surprising, affecting pleasure.

That’s true of nearly all the series’ characters—the female ones, anyway. All four of the sisters are capably, compassionately portrayed: Hawke’s Jo rivals the greats that have preceded her, Fitzgerald gives Meg and earnest youthfulness and makes it impossible to forget her age, no matter how quickly she matures, and Newton’s Amy is both deeply sympathetic and a total asshole—a balance not all Amys have been able to strike. But it’s Emily Watson’s Marmee that’s the true revelation here. There’s a wonderful sequence in the novel in which Marmee comforts an ashamed Jo that she too has a temper: “I am angry nearly every day of my life, Jo, but I have learned not to show it,” she says. When Watson says it, I believe her. Her Marmee is warm, but not saintly; that temper, and the sometimes titanic effort it takes to master it, lingers beneath the surface of every scene in which she, or any of her tribe, encounter difficulty.

That Watson is a gifted performer is no shock. That she, Thomas, and Caswill have breathed such life, blemishes and all, into a character that’s easy to idealize should not be unexpected, and yet it is. The same can be said, to a lesser extent, of Angela Lansbury’s Aunt March, who plays a steely-eyed old biddy whose humor comes not from an author’s need for comic relief, but from a lurking sense of humor that seems hard fought and often haphazardly hidden.

If there’s a loose peg or rusty hinge in the performances, it’s to be found among the gentlemen of the cast. None of the men are disappointing, per se—Michael Gambon and Dylan Baker are both unsurprisingly great in paternal roles, and Julian Morris and Mark Stanley, as two of the March sisters’ besotted admirers, bring great tenderness to their performances. But this simply isn’t a story about the men. When characters like Amy, often rendered in rather broad strokes, are brought to such detailed life, it only underlines how thin the development of the male characters is by comparison. It’s true of the novel as well as Thomas’s adaptation, though neighbor Laurie (Jonah Hauer-King) was better served by Alcott, as well as in previous adaptations.

Caswill and her team wisely let these performances and this great writing do most of the lifting, but rest assured that the direction, cinematography, costume and production design, and the simple but intoxicating score are all capable at worst, lovely at best, and thoughtful all the way through. That last is particularly true of the work done by editors Matthew Tabern and Hazel Baillie, who allow the March’s many Christmases to help mark passage of time, use clever juxtaposition to hint at corners of the story we might not see (a girl prepares to step carefully out of a boat; we cut to a downpour of rain), and have a keen sense of when to let the camera sit on Elwy’s face as Beth contemplates her fear, Watson’s face as Marmee masters her temper; or Newton and Hawke face as fury and shame do battle within Jo and Amy. It’s insightful, compassionate editing, and it makes this story sing.

“Simple, sincere people seldom speak much of their piety,” Alcott writes of Beth in one of the book’s more moving passages. “It shows itself in acts rather than in words, and has more influence than homilies or protestations.” The same, phrased different, is often said of great storytelling: show, don’t tell. Thomas and Caswill show us these women; and the capable actors who bring them to life do the same. We know what boldfaced traits these women possess, not because they’re avatars or classic characters, but because in this “Little Women,” we understand them. They show us who they are, and we, the lucky viewers, get to know them all over again. 

Allison Shoemaker

Allison Shoemaker is a freelance film and television critic based in Chicago. 

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