While I have seen many other versions of Little Women, I believe this is the best I have ever seen because it shows the Pre-Raphaelite philosophy, which is a pulling away from the corsets and restraints of the Victorian era.
As Jo, Winona Ryder is very lively and spunky, yet we see her frustrations with the social norms of the day. When the March family gathers around the new piano on Christmas Day and sings "Deck the Halls," Ryder boisterously shouts out "Merry Measure", which I found very refreshing. We see her romp about with her best friend Laurie (Christian Bale) who just so happens to be male, and slowly fall in love with the poetic Freidrich (Gabriel Byrne). After not having seen Laurie for a while, we see the genuine joy in Jo's face when he makes a surprise visit - with his bride, who is none other than Jo's sister Amy! Jo is completely delighted to have her childhood friend as her brother-in-law!
Bale is a fun, joyous, romantic, and ever-so-slightly batty Laurie. He loves Jo the way he would love a little sister, but his heart clearly belongs to Amy (Samantha Matthis). While we now see him on the silver screen as Batman, he is far from being a brooding dark knight in shining armor - he runs out and grabs happiness with both hands!
Gabriel Byrne, who plays King Arthur's father Uther Pendragon in Excalibur, and the swashbuckling D'Artagnan in The Man in the Iron Mask, captures the very essence of the Pre-Raphaelite movement as the poet/philosopher Friedrich, Jo's true love. As her literary talent emerges, we see him encouraging her to be, and write, as herself, at one point, making sure she uses her real name - Josephine - rather than the name she has been using on her works - Joseph. Rather than make Jo into something pretty and sweet and dainty, he embraces her spunky spirit and sharp intellect.
Susan Sarandon brings Abigail "Marmee" into a starring role as she imparts feminist wisdom to her three daughters and challenges those who try to make them conform to the rigidity of society. Likewise, Kirsten Dunst and Samantha Matthis together team up as Amy, the artist in the family, keeping in mind that one of the best things about the mid to late 19th century is its painting! Both Dunst, as younger Amy, and Matthis, as older Amy, show that passion for beauty that is carried through the brush and onto the canvas.
Unfortunately, Claire Daines is too strong and to vibrant as the delicate little girl Beth. She also looks far too old to play this sweet dainty child, who ultimately dies. While the ideal Juliet in Romeo and Juliet, for which she was far better suited, I did not see Daines, as Beth, struggle with her handicaps and illnesses. Strong actors such as Olivia de Havilland as Melanie and Tom Hanks as the AIDS-stricken hero of Philadelphia have excelled in playing characters with physical difficulties, but Daines, sadly, somehow was not convincing enough. Perhaps some artistic liberty could have been taken, as was done in the previous Little Women starring Katharine Hepburn as Jo, and the very young Margaret O'Brien as Beth, by making Beth the youngest of the four March sisters and perhaps using the talented Dunst instead.
Rounding off this charming re-telling of the cherished tale are Trini Alvarado and Eric Stolz as the eldest March sister Meg and her beloved John Brooke. This movie shows how their love flourishes even in the face of the harsh criticism Meg receives for marrying a poor man.
Mary Wickes, whom we know and love as the tone-deaf singer Sister Mary Lazarus in Sister Act, is a vibrant and feisty Aunt March, who, while trying to impose convention onto this unconventional family, and failing miserably, shows a great joy and a great unconditional love for them, eccentricities and all!
This is truly a lovely and charming movie, best seen at Christmas time - or, at least for me, any time!