Sunday, 17 March 2013

Little Women and the Big, Decade Long Hug

Gillian Armstrong’s take on Little Women has enjoyed almost two decades of being regarded as a contemporary classic in both the family drama and Christmas feel-good departments, offering arguably the most complete adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s American novel. Released to rave reviews and sizeable box office returns, this tale of the March family is perhaps the strongest due to its modernity – not merely owing to its relative youth and (almost) relevant cast, but due also to an injection of critic-appeasing feminism in its treatment of headstrong protagonist Jo March (Winona Ryder). However, struggling against this progressive take on the rise of the New Woman in the second half of the 19th Century is a melodramatic streak that, in its own way, is also deeply rooted in ‘90s cinema. Released slap bang in the middle of the 90s, Little Women, bringing together a cast of actors usually associated with works far removed from the traditional period drama, now offers itself up as a strong representative of 90s Sentimentalism – a reaction against the cinema of the ‘80s that would come to define the period and, in turn, be countered by the late ‘90s push for a sincere cynicism.

 The film charts the critical years of the March family girls, as they grow into womanhood against the backdrop of the American Civil War. There’s the beautiful Meg (Trini Alvarado), the aforementioned Jo, sweet-natured Beth (Claire Danes – in her first major role), and childish Amy (Kirsten Dunst / Samantha Mathis). Whilst the film is ostensibly a Ryder vehicle (we’ll come to that later), it by and large does a good job of developing this family of strong characters and creating a nest from which the family’s interactions with the likes of young Laurie (Christian Bale) and Aunt March (Mary Wickes) feel multi-faceted. It is this play between strong character actors that gives the film its charm, ensuring that it will remain a favourite at Christmas time for many years yet.

 For the most part then, each of Marmee’s (Susan Sarandon) daughters is depicted as an individual, being well realised in script and always strongly portrayed by their respective actress. Except, of course, for consumptive ol’ Beth. Whilst the Beth of the original novel was as fully developed as any of the other sisters, here, Danes’ role is merely that of a cipher, thrown into the story with little evolution so that, by the time of her death, she can merely trigger the necessary tear-jerking climax that allows us to instead better empathise with her poor, put-upon sisters – particularly Jo. Danes’ Beth is the strongest example of how Alcott’s novel has been ever so slightly re-fitted to appeal to a growing trend in this period’s cinema for calculated sincerity. For comparison’s sake, Forrest Gump was released in the same year.

 It might seem a little odd then that Winona Ryder should choose to be the starring actress in a film so obviously intended for the family market, when her career up until this point had been defined by roles in edgier fare. Ryder’s Jo stands apart from earlier portrayals however due not only to an increased focus on her character, but also in enforcing stronger feminist echoes in her interactions with the film’s male cast. Her relationships with both Laurie and Professor Bhaer (Gabriel Byrne) are defined by her push for equality in treatment, with Jo later tackling the intellectual debates of her day with ease. The script’s treatment of this ranges from well-focused development (Jo’s discussion of Transcendentalism with Friedrich Bhaer) to clear shoe-horning (Jo’s discussion of women voting upon her arrival in New York City), though it becomes clear why Ryder was considered a good fit for the role after all.

 Interestingly, Ryder’s other big feature in the year 1994 was none other than Reality Bites, now considered something of a cult classic in the vein of Richard Linklater’s work in the period. On the surface, Little Women and Reality Bites couldn’t be further removed, targeting different audiences entirely. Yet Ben Stiller’s directorial debut plays with that same manipulative “sincerity” that marks Little Women, offering up a story centred on disenfranchised videographer Lelaina (Ryder) and her group of slacker friends. Stiller and writer Helen Childress’s approach is smart in ostensibly attacking the values of ‘90s media, presenting The Real World-era MTV as a controlling PR machine that nevertheless fails to crush Lelaina’s earnest principles. It’s a clever move that quickly falls apart under scrutiny; the film is a sugar-coated approach to twenty-something existence designed to appeal to The Real World audience. Throughout, Ryder, Ethan Hawke et al grapple with what it means to stay true to yourself against a backdrop of Gap commercials and AIDS that pulls at the right chords without ever shaking up the status quo. It’s a problem I’ve always had with the film, and one I touched upon in my article on the so-called ‘Boomerang Generation’ back in 2011. 

 In many ways then, Little Women is ironically more sincere than Reality Bites, operating within a melodrama that is expected within the genre – look at where Sentimentalism began. Note also that, in around five years’ time, Election and The Matrix will be the endpoint of Nineties cinema, and in 2000, Christian Bale will have his major breakthrough in a film that counters both ‘90s Sentimentalism and the ‘80s Individualism that birthed it. Little Women is quite rightly regarded as a fine example of family cinema from the period – it’s interesting to note just how far that representative status extends.