Sunday, September 6, 2020

"LITTLE WOMEN" (2017) Review

"LITTLE WOMEN" (2017) Review

There have been a good number of adaptations of Louisa May Alcott's 1868-69 novel, "Little Women". Although it was not the first adaptation ever made, the first one I had ever seen was the two-part 1978 miniseries that aired on NBC. But the most recent adaptation I have seen also aired on television. It was Heidi Thomas' three-part miniseries that aired on the BBC in 2017.

For some reason "LITTLE WOMEN" - or at least this adaptation - has failed to win any acclaim in compare to the 1994 and 2019 movies. At least with the American press. The British press, on the other hand, seemed very impressed by Heidi Thomas' adaptation. Frankly, this situation seems like a case of national pride - a British television producer adapting a famous American novel. As for the American press - what can I say? Was this version of "LITTLE WOMEN" really that mediocre? Or was this a case of American journalists resenting the very British Heidi Thomas adapting Alcott's novel?

I certainly had some quibbles regarding "LITTLE WOMEN". In an effort to be more politically correct, the miniseries featured two minor African-American characters - a badly wounded Union soldier and a wig maker in Concord, Massachusetts. I had no problems with the wig maker's presence. But I definitely had a problem with the presence of the wounded black soldier being nursed by Mr. March, the four protagonists' father, during the miniseries' first half hour. "LITTLE WOMEN" began right before Christmas 1861. The Union Army did not begin recruiting black soldiers until the mid-July 1862. The 2017 miniseries also featured another historical blooper. Sometime during the second episode, one of the characters mentioned the Battle of Ball's Bluff being recently fought. This is impossible, considering the battle was actually fought at least two months before the story began.

I had a few other quibbles regarding "LITTLE WOMEN". As much as I had enjoyed his performances as the March family's neighbor, Mr. March, I must admit that I found Michael Gambon's American accent rather sketchy. Thomas made a mistake that many other adaptations made - she allowed one actress, namely Kathryn Newton, to portray the youngest March sibling, Amy. Newton is an excellent actress, but there were times when she seemed a bit too old to be portraying a pre-teen and later early teens Amy. The 1949 MGM movie allowed Amy, as portrayed by the 16-17 year-old Elizabeth Taylor, to be older than Beth. The production barely got away with this. But only the 1994 movie had cast two actresses to portray Amy - Kirsten Dunst (who was roughly 11 to 12 years old when that movie was shot) and later, Samantha Mathis.

One last problem - or should I say quibble - bothered me about "LITTLE WOMEN". Hairstyles. Especially the hairstyles worn by one Josephine "Jo" March. I understand that Jo is considered the "tomboy" of the March family. And I could understand the casual or loose style in which she wore her hair during the first half of the story . . . and inside the family home. But there were times when she wore her hair in a similar manner when she was outside. And "tomboy" or not, I just cannot see Jo being so relaxed with her hair - at least not in public and not during the 1860s. Sometimes, I feel that this effort to portray Jo as a "free spirit" went a little too far.

The American press had more problems with "LITTLE WOMEN". The main theme behind their dissatisfaction seemed to be criticisms of the production's "faithful" adaptation of Alcott's novel. In other words, the miniseries is a stridently conservative adaptation. It lacked - at least according to Sonia Sariya of "Vanity Fair" magazine - progress. Critics accused the miniseries of following Alcott's novel by allowing all of the sisters to adhere to the social dictates of mid-century United States. As I write this, I am trying to so hard not to punch my fist through my computer screen or scream in frustration. "LITTLE WOMEN" is an adaptation of a novel that was published in 1868, not 1968 or 2018. Or perhaps they were pissed that Jo ended up married to Professor Bhaer, which did not happen in Alcott's original ending (before it was changed). I keep forgetting that many of today's feminists believe that the only way a woman can achieve her dream or be "fulfilled" is by avoiding matrimony altogether. I also find it odd that none of these critics have demanded the same fate for the protagonists featured in any of the Jane Austen adaptations, including the recent movie, "EMMA". So, why dump this nonsense on this particular production? Because it was a British adaptation . . . of an American novel?

I came away with the feeling that the overreaching theme for "LITTLE WOMEN" seemed to be personal self-satisfaction for its four major protagonists. This adaptation featured the first time Elizabeth "Beth" March, third and most reserved sister, being portrayed as someone who suffered from social anxiety disorder, instead of mere shyness. I had once come across an article on the Internet that claimed the recent 2019 movie adaptation had finally done justice to the youngest March sister and not portray her as a villain. I could only shake my head in confusion. I have never regarded Amy as a villain. Certainly not in this or any of the other adaptation of "Little Women". Yes, Amy could be vain, coddled and a bit spiteful. But she had to struggle to overcome some of her negative traits and at the same time, develop into a strong-minded woman who knew what she wanted in life - to become an artist and live a life beyond genteel poverty. The same could be said for the oldest March sister, Margaret "Meg". She starts out as a young woman, who is already regarded as ideal in the story. Some have criticized Meg for her desire for domestic bliss. Superficially, I believe there is nothing wrong with this. After all, it is a woman's right to choose what she wants in life. However, like Amy, Meg also harbored a desire to be both socially acceptable and wealthy. I never had a problem with Amy attaining this position, because I have always suspected she was emotionally suited to such a lifestyle. I believe Meg was a different story. I believe Meg had to learn to attain her desire for domestic bliss in a way that suited her, instead of Amy. And she had to realize that kowtowing to her great-Aunt March's demands for all of the March sisters to marry the "right men" (namely wealthy) and take their places within the upper-classes was not the way. At least for her. Meg's encounter with Laurie's British upper-class friends, the Vaughns, may have finally allowed her to question her previous desire to be socially acceptable.

While viewing this miniseries, it had occurred to me that Josephine "Jo" March might the most complicated of the four sisters. Many admire Jo for her artistic ambitions to be a writer and her independent spirit. But I thought Heidi Thomas did an excellent job in conveying how Jo can sometimes be her own worst enemy. Despite her ambition to be a novelist, she was willing to waste her literary talents to create cheap melodramas to help support the family. Initially, I saw nothing wrong with this. However, Jo seemed doomed to continue wasting her talent with writing cheap melodramas. She probably would have continued this path if her parents and Professor Bhaer had not encouraged to take a chance and embrace her true artistic potential. Another aspect of this production that really impressed me was how Heidi Thomas made Jo's rejection of Laurie's marriage proposal more plausible. Clearer. This was especially apparent in scenes that featured Jo's quiet rejections of Laurie's romantic overtures, her final rejection of his marriage proposal and her conversation with her mother on why Laurie could never be the right husband for her. But it is obvious that Jo's biggest problem was her fear of losing her family - not only to death, but also to love and marriage. This explained her hostile attitude toward Meg's romance with John Brooke. Jo seemed to be afraid of growing up. And she seemed to dread that growing up would eventually mean losing her sisters.

"LITTLE WOMEN" features some differences from Alcott's novel. Did these changes hurt the miniseries' narrative? Well, I some issues with Thomas' erroneous mentions of historical events of the Civil War. On the hand, I thought her portrayal of Beth suffering from social anxiety disorder was something of a masterstroke. The miniseries did not feature a great deal of Alcott's religious additions to the story . . . something I did not miss. There were other aspects from Alcott's story that was also missing - the family newspaper, the Pickwick Club, and the sisters' amateur dramatics. But honestly? I did not miss them.

Earlier, I had criticized some of the hairstyles worn by actress Maya Hawke, during her portrayal of Jo March. However, I certainly cannot criticize Eimer Ni Mhaoldomhnaigh's costume designs. I do not regard them as among the best 1860s costumes I have seen on television or in the movies. But I thought they were pretty solid, as shown in the image below:

Knowing that this adaptation of Alcott's novel was a British production, I thought Susie Cullen's production designs did a first-rate job in converting the Ireland locations into mid-19th century Massachusetts, New York City and Great Britain. Considering the miniseries was shot in Ireland, perhaps Ms. Cullen's job proved to be easier than I had originally assumed. I certainly enjoyed Piers McGrail's photography for the miniseries. I found it beautiful, thanks to the colorful and sharp images.

One of the best aspects of "LITTLE WOMEN" - at least for me - proved to be its cast. The 2017 miniseries featured solid performances from supporting players that include Julian Morris as John Brooke, Meg March's future husband; Helen Methven as the March family's housekeeper Hannah; Kathleen Warner Yeates as Aunt Carroll; Richard Pepple as a local Concord wigmaker; along with Felix Mackenzie-Barrow and Mei Bignall as the visiting Vaughn siblings. But there were supporting performances that impressed me. Dylan Baker gave the most memorable portrayal of Mr. March, the sisters' father, I have seen on-screen. It helped that his character was never in danger of being pushed to the background, unlike other adaptations I have seen. Mark Stanley gave a very charming and intelligent performance as Professor Bhaer, the German scholar whom Jo befriended while working as a governess in New York City. Stanley made it very easy for me to see how Jo would find Professor Bhaer so attractive. I really enjoyed Angela Landsbury's portrayal of Mr. March's aunt, Aunt March. The actress did such a marvelous job in conveying the character's forthright and controlling nature.

Michael Gambon's portrayal of the Marches' neighbor, the elderly Mr. Laurence. Gambon did an excellent job of developing the character from a reserved and forbidding man grieving over a recently deceased child to a wise and compassionate friend and grandparent. If I had to choose my favorite on-screen Mrs. March aka "Marmee" I have seen, the honor would go to Emily Watson. I really enjoyed how Watson portrayed Marmee as this wise, yet pragmatic woman struggling to keep her family together. Another excellent performance came from Jonah Hauer-King, the story's "boy-next-door" who became a close friend of the March sisters. I cannot deny that Hauer-King gave one of the most complex performances in the miniseries. He did an excellent job in conveying the positive aspects of Laurie's personality - including his charm and loyalty to the March famiy; and the character's more negative aspects - namely his impatience, his inability to understand Jo's intellectual pursuits and his own quick temper.

Naturally, I had to turn my attention to the four actresses who portrayed the March sisters. Thanks to Thomas, actress Annes Elwy was given the opportunity to portray the reserved Beth March from the prospective of one suffering from social anxiety disorder. And Elway did an excellent job of conveying Beth's emotional disorder and the struggles she endured to overcome it. Earlier, I had complained that Kathryn Newton was too old to portray Amy March during the first two years of the war. And I stand by this complaint. But I cannot deny that I ended up enjoying Newton's performance of the ambiguous Amy anyway. And I am thankful she did not make the mistake of exaggerating her performance to portray a character seven to eight years younger - something that many actors and actresses tend to do.

Someone had once complained that Willa Fitzgerald's portrayal of the oldest March sister, seemed "too mature". And I do not understand this complaint. Meg was not only the oldest sibling, but possessed a personality that led her to occasionally behave like a "quasi parent" to her younger sisters. And Fitzgerald did a first-rate job in portraying his aspect of Meg's personality and her role within the March family hierarchy. As for Maya Hawke - questionable hairstyle aside - I truly enjoyed her performance as the story's main protagonist, the artistic and tomboyish Josephine "Jo" March. She did a superb job in capturing the many complex textures of Jo's personality. More importantly, Hawke also did an excellent job of developing Jo from this gawky and outgoing personality to someone forced to grow into adulthood - even if a little reluctantly. It is a pity that Hawke's performance was never acknowledge with an acting nomination of any kind.

In fact, it is a pity that very few have been able to truly appreciate this adaptation of Louisa May Alcott's novel. The three-part miniseries seemed to be overshadowed by two recent adaptations - Gillian Armstrong's 1994 film and Greta Gerwig's 2019 production. I am not putting these two films down. But as far as I am concerned, Heidi Thomas' miniseries strikes me as worthy as those two films. In fact, I feel it is just as worthy as other adaptations of the novel - including the 1933 film and the adaptation released in 1949. I honestly did not believe I would enjoy this adaptation as much I did. And I have to give kudos to Heidi Thomas for creating a superb adaptation. She was aptly supported by excellent direction from Vanessa Caswill and a first-rate cast led by Maya Hawke. I look forward to viewing this adaptation in years to come.


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