Little Women (2017) The Maya Hawke
                    A review by Corinne H. Smith
     One of the major film interpretations of the semi-autobiographical American novel written by Louisa May Alcott. Known to fans as “the Maya Hawke,” because she is the actress who portrays Jo(sephine) March, the main character. This version aired on television as three episodes on PBS in December 2017.




     This is the story of the four March sisters – Meg (Willa Fitzgerald), Jo (Maya Hawke), Beth (Annes Elwy), and Amy (Kathryn Newton). We see what draws them together and what pushes them apart. We witness their special devotion to their mother, whom they call Marmee (Emily Watson). The story is set mostly in Concord, Massachusetts, in the early 1860s; and the main action centers around the most independent girl, second daughter Jo. Their father, Mr. March (Dylan Baker), is at first away from home and is involved in the war effort. The Marches were once well off but now have to make do with what they have. Every once in a while, they get a visit from their stodgy but rich relative, Aunt March (Angela Lansbury), who dishes out a lot of judgment; but who also, reluctantly, doles out a few dollars to keep the household running. And then there’s the boy next door, known as Laurie (Jonah Hauer-King), who lives with his wealthy grandfather, Mr. Laurence (Michael Gambon). They both become good friends of the March family. Jo and Laurie hit it off right away. Will their friendship become something stronger? Watch and find out. As the film rolls along, we see four young girls (who in theory start out at 16, 15, 13, and 12 years old) indeed turn into little women.

     Because of its three-episode format, this television show moves along like a three-act play. The storyline fits this structure perfectly, too. And at 175 minutes in length, it offers screen writer Heidi Thomas the advantage of having more time to fill than in a standard two-hour movie. As a result, she could interject scenes that are hinted at but are not fully covered in the book or in other movie versions. Like views from Civil War battlefields, or Meg giving birth, for example. The main action focuses on Jo, as it should. And some of the other characters reveal a few more characteristics than usual. Mr. March is much more involved with the family here, which is an interesting approach. Thomas also chooses to go beyond the basic plot and show “the rest of the story” at the end. My one quibble is how little we see of Professor Bhaer. I would have liked to have seen more scenes of him with Jo.

     The cast members portray their characters quite well. Each sister is clearly defined, with her own nuances and personality. Maya Hawke plays an extremely hard-boiled and determined Jo. Kathryn Newton’s Amy is a selfish brat who somehow matures into a young lady. Jonah Hauer-King is simply adorable as Laurie, and he also shows that he can react with unexpected emotion. Angela Lansbury is good as snobby and filled-to-the-brim-with-attitude Aunt March. English actor Mark Stanley dons a slight German accent for his stint as Professor Bhaer; but as I mentioned above, I don’t think we see enough of him to form any sort of opinion about the man. And Emily Watson’s Marmee is terrific, loving, human, and real. She deserves more than a nod or two for her performance here.

     The filming was done in Ireland. The house is an authentic reproduction of Louisa May Alcott’s family home, Orchard House, in Concord, Massachusetts. The surrounding landscape looks lush and is not like any found in New England, yet it’s not intrusive as being noticeably incorrect. But the production style? Oh, my! Such drama, such detail, such seriousness, such intensity! This is what happens when BBC and Masterpiece take on an American classic. They use a very different approach to shooting the scenes of the story. More attention is paid to the use of old-style language and to intimate depictions of daily life. In addition to the usual vignettes, we see random close-ups of hands: using pen and ink; lacing corsets; lifting a piano lid; holding the reins. Some scenes are more graphic than we will find in other versions, and this may not be a bad thing. I also like the subtle choices of background music. The overall result is a more thoughtful and more realistic portrayal of this fictional family. Life in the March house was not all merriness, and it was not at all an idyllic life. Even though this film presents a bit darker representation than the other Little Women, it can still be a special joy to watch.

The Little Women of 2017 has been followed by the Sarah Davenport (2018) and the Saoirse Ronan (2019). It was preceded by the Katharine Hepburn (1933), the June Allyson (1949), the Angela Down (1970),  the Susan Dey (1978), and the Winona Ryder (1994). If you’re curious, you could watch some of the others and make your own decisions about them. Better yet: go back to Miss Alcott’s original novel. None of the movies can cover the detail discovered in the book.

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