Protective parents who bemoan the viciousness or plain mediocrity of modern
media should know that even in the vaunted good-old-days there were lots of
lousy movies. Current dissatisfactions can tempt us to
unhelpfully idealize, but the fact is that they didn't always make 'em like they used to, even when they were supposed to be making 'em like they used to. There’s a flip side to this notion, and that is that things today are not nearly, or at least as unrelievedly bad as we sometimes say or think they are. Gillian Armstrong’s lovely adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s classic novel Little Women is another bit of the ample evidence that exists in this regard. This is a pretty picture, full of sincerity and sweetness and light. These qualities are rooted partly in the source, and also substantially in its updating. If there is sentimentality here—neither Alcott nor Armstrong resist pulling out the stops when the situation dictates—then it is excused or even earned because it comes from real sentiment, from real feeling. We get this through a number of means. Maybe most importantly, Armstong has clear sympathy with and affection for her material. She also makes effective use of an old director’s trick. The great American filmmaker John Ford was especially noted for this—emotional excess is avoided and actual emotion is heightened through the taking of time in scenes of exposition and character interaction, and through the use of humour. Having won us over with a bit of knockabout or fractious fraternal dialogue, Armstrong can come more affectingly to moments of both love and loss. These work, and powerfully, because they emerge out of the everyday interactions, out of authoritatively detailed portrayals of recognizable behaviour. This is insightful, loving filmmaking, and as such the viewer is happy to give in when the bigger moments, the declines and deaths and repentances and reconciliations come. And big though the moments may be, they are still handled subtly, and beautifully. Upon this film’s release some eyebrows were raised over perceived departures from the book. Those who suspect sneaky feminist updatings (and why shouldn’t a modern comment critically upon an esteemed source?) might note that, while there is quiet affirmation of a woman's rights to a bunch of things, there is also fair-minded, kind-hearted attention to the possible burdens and unfulfilments on the male side of the equation. Most everyone here is treated with regard and sympathy. The benefits of such a sensibility in a family setting are obvious.