Thursday, May 10, 2018

Little Women: The Original Fab Four

Louisa May Alcott never objected when people confused her with Jo March, her most famous character. She even answered mail addressed to the second March daughter. Of course, Ms. March remains one of the most roundly beloved figures in American literature, who helped spring-board Katharine Hepburn’s career when she played the role in George Cukor’s acclaimed 1933 film. Happily, the charm of Alcott’s story remains undiminished in Heidi Thomas’s warm and reassuring adaptation of Little Women (promo here), directed by Vanessa Caswill, which premieres this Sunday on PBS’s Masterpiece.

It is Little Women, so you should know the story by now. There are indeed four March daughters, one for each Beatle. Josephine “Jo” March is the second oldest. She is a bit of a tomboy with a quick temper. She is not necessarily the most practical of the March sisters, but she is the strongest. The oldest, Margaret “Meg” is considered a beauty with lady-like manners, but she will be more egalitarian than her society friends would expect. In some ways, Elizabeth “Beth” is Jo’s opposite. She is shy but has a talent for brokering peace among the family. Amy Curtis March is the youngest and often quite a handful, because she always expects to be the center of attention.

Their mother Margaret “Marmee” maintains the household and provides for them as well as she can while their father is serving as a Union Army chaplain. They will also welcome their new neighbor Theodore “Laurie” Laurence into their constant company. Although born to wealth, Laurence has been deeply touched family tragedy. However, his friendship with the March Sisters helps him better relate to his grandfather.

This take on Little Women is particularly well-cast, fortunately starting first and foremost with Maya Hawke. Her resemblance to her mother Uma Thurman is striking, but that is the least of what she brings to the table. Hawke completely nails the indomitable Jo March spirit and powers the production with her appropriately youthful energy. In fact, Little Women really ought to make her a star.

Laurie Laurence requires some tricky balancing, but Jonah Hauer-King is quite sure-footed in the part, developing some crackling chemistry with Hawke’s Jo. We find ourselves hoping they will work out as a couple, even though…you know. Annes Elwy turns Beth March’s Camille scenes with impressive dignity and understatement, while Kathryn Newton’s Amy March pouts like nobody’s business. Naturally, Angela Lansbury gets prominent billing for playing the Marches’ snobby Aunt, but she is rather a tame shadow of Dame Maggie Smith’s Dowager Countess. On the other hand, the great Michael Gambon makes the most of his brief screen time as Laurence’s grandfather. Throughout it all, Emily Watson anchors the film as the heroically dedicated Marmee.

There are good reasons why Alcott’s Little Women has been so enduringly popular, which are abundantly clear in Thomas’s adaptation, especially the complete lack of cynicism. It is a big, messy tale of family love and strife that makes no apologies for its heartfelt nostalgia. Frankly, it is quite remarkable how refreshing it is to reconnect with the March family (and the Laurences). The only quibble is the awkward way the series has been divided over two nights for American television, with the first installment clocking in at a mere one-hour, but the second instalment running nearly two hours, on the dot, but that is a minor point (especially considering how many viewers will wait to binge it later). Very highly recommended, Little Women airs this Sunday and the following Sunday (5/13 & 5/20) as part of the current season of Masterpiece on most PBS stations nationwide.