This review contains spoilers.
Meg (Willa Fitzgerald), Jo (Maya Hawke), Beth (Annes Elwy), and Amy (Kathryn Newton) are sisters living together with their mother (the divine Emily Watson) in Massachusetts during the American Civil War. Their father (Dylan Baker) is away with the Union Army and though the fighting is distant, its effects are still very much felt. Their neighbour Laurie (Jonah Hauer-King) becomes their close friend as the sisters grow up, each with their own very set ideas of the lives they want to lead.
Still immensely popular all these years after Louisa M. Alcott’s first instalment of Little Women was published, it is a tale of sisterhood that everybody has some awareness of, whether it’s from the book itself, the several adaptations it has received, or Joey and Rachel’s book swap. The latest adaptation from the BBC not only features the requisite mostly female cast, but also features women on directing, writing, and producing duties. In a climate where the debate about representation rages, it feels enormously hopeful to have one of the BBC’s flagship Christmas programmes led by such a team.
Adapting Little Women is no easy task though. It is a famously problematic book in which the sisters are advised to ‘conquer themselves’ and to practice emotional restraint and piety at all times. Heidi Thomas’ writing doesn’t quite solve all of these issues, but the rougher edges of the sisters’ respective fates feel smoothed out; Mr Brooke, for example, doesn’t appear to go through his less than romantic abandonment of Meg until she is advised by Marmee that she has a duty as both a mother and a wife. Thomas doesn’t quite shed the more saccharine elements of the tale either, instead throwing the characters into the practice of self-improvement that Marmee advocates, which means it is all the more spectacular when the girls lose their way.
Because, as with the book, Little Women is at its best when it hits the extremes, where the control that Marmee preaches flies out the window. The scene in which Jo finds that Amy (still The Worst) has burned her book is the first real explosion of raw emotion and is the most affecting moment in a first episode that struggled to find its feet. As the adaptation progresses, the moments in which the characters fail to keep themselves in check (Marmee’s breakdown over breath, Meg’s outburst to Aunt March, for example) are the most compelling. Little Women might ultimately advocate restraint, but the characters feel at their most human when they let themselves go.
Navigating these bigger moments means that the pacing of the three episodes can feel uneven, particularly in the opening instalment. There are some plot points that are raced through whilst others are lingered over. When there is one of those scenes where the emotional dam bursts, the adaptation becomes wholly absorbing, but getting to them can feel slow and laborious. Having said that, there’s no denying that the golden-hued cinematography is gorgeous to look at so on occasions, it feels fine to linger unexpectedly on a certain shot.
Where it does succeed consistently though is in the performances of its incredible cast. As the older generation of Marches, Dylan Baker and Emily Watson are quiet dignity personified. Though Baker is often absent from the action by the very nature of Mr March’s commitment to the war and subsequent illness, his return to the March house brings with it a twinkly-eyed benevolence. Watson, always reliable, navigates the preachier Marmee moments well, usually with a knowing look that suggests a bit of steel behind the March matriarch’s eyes. When she gets her big scene towards the end of the third episode, the torrent of emotion unleashed feels almost overwhelming after the control displayed previously. Then there is the incomparable Angela Lansbury proving you can still steal scenes at the glorious age of 92. She lights up the screen whenever she appears.
As the unconventional Jo, Maya Hawke is the character prone to the aforementioned emotional outbursts and gives a beautiful performance of a woman trying to find a place in a world that seeks to change her. Her slightly gangly walk adds an endearingly awkward element to Jo and she delivers Jo’s big moments with such gusto that it’s hard not to fall for her. Given Jo’s popularity as a character and the calibre of the previous actors to play her, this is no mean feat.
Elsewhere, Willa Fitzgerald is dignified grace as Meg, capable of conveying Meg’s inner turmoil with simple expressions that are no less affecting than Hawke’s bigger performance. As the two younger sisters, Annes Elwy and Kathryn Newton fare less well. Part of the problem for Elwy is an inconsistency in the way that Beth is written. It’s an interesting take on the character to give her social anxiety, but it all too quickly falls away, the weight of the character’s fate taking precedence.
Newton’s Amy suffers because Newton is simply too old to play her at the beginning of the story. The burning of Jo’s book is an act of childishness in the book, an overreaction to a slight that is grounded in Amy’s immaturity. Because Amy seems older in this adaptation, the act feels more calculatingly cruel and it’s an element of Newton’s performance that doesn’t go away. Even when Amy has softened as she ages, Newton simply seems too knowing, too calculating, for Amy to earn the kind of sympathy that the audience asks of us.
Little Women is a mixed affair, but on the whole, a good one. It’s an often entertaining adaptation of Alcott’s 19th century bestseller and is aided at all times by the sparky performances of its cast. Staying faithful to the story means having to negotiate its very particular moral code, but there’s a fine balance struck here and when the March girls are allowed to fly, they briefly soar.