And I loved this one for many of the same reasons that I still love it now. It looks great with the highest production values of any adaptation so far. The locations and sets are marvelous and I want to live in them. And the acting is amazing, but I'll get deeper into that in a second.
Being familiar with the story now, I appreciate this one even more. It brings out feminist themes without dramatically changing Alcott's story or characters, mostly through the character of Marmee, played by Susan Sarandon. Pa March does show up at the end, but the movie makes great use of his absence by emphasizing Marmee's single-parenting and underlining that this is a household entirely made up of women without any of the traditional structure or protection that would be present with a patriarch there. I'm a little sad that the script gets rid of Christianity as the motivation for self-improvement (replacing it with Kant's transcendental idealism), but given the current state of popular Christianity, I understand the desire to go with something different.
Winona Ryder is an amazing Jo. She's clearly out of step with cultural expectations for her gender, but doesn't have to be cartoonishly masculine to show it. And she's the only Jo so far to actually get her hair styled into a super cute bob when she sells most of it for Marmee's trip money.
It was a smart move to cast very young Kirsten Dunst as Amy in the first half of the film. It's a little jarring when she becomes Samantha Mathis in the second half after only four years have passed (and none of the other actors change), but it very much helps to have a young actor playing Amy when she's a selfish, spoiled child and an older actor playing her once she's both physically and spiritually matured.
Shockingly though, the MVP of this adaptation is Claire Danes as Beth. Beth can sometimes be more plot device than character, just there for everyone else to comment on or feed sad about. The best adaptations do lovely things with her relationship with Laurie's grandfather, but even then she's not much on her own. Danes makes me feel for Beth and relate to her like I never do in other versions. I'm pretty sure she was hired for her lip quiver, which she uses to rip my heart out in a couple of scenes. And the script also gives her a heartbreaking speech on her deathbed where she talks about always feeling left behind her sisters, but now she's going to be the one to go first. So poignant and painful.
Christian Bale is a great Laurie and I love the attention the movie gives to setting the foundation of his relationship with Amy. There's a scene when he's taking Amy to live with Aunt March while Beth is sick and Amy is thinking about her own potential death. She says that she doesn't want to go without ever being kissed and Laurie kindly (and innocently) sets her at ease by promising to kiss her before she dies. It foreshadows their eventual romance, but it's also just a lovely example of Laurie taking her childish concerns seriously when not a lot of other people do.
A big challenge for Little Women adaptations is to make Amy and Laurie's romance convincing when it finally happens. If it's not carefully handled, it can seem like Laurie is settling for Amy since Jo is unavailable. Armstrong's version manages it with a couple of scenes.
The first addresses the elephant in the room by giving Amy and Laurie a conversation about whom they want to marry. Laurie says something about wanting to be part of the March family and Amy calls him on it. She asks if he thinks any of the sisters would want to be loved for their family instead of for themselves. And since she's been pursuing the wealthy Fred Vaughn, Laurie turns it back on her and asks if she thinks Fred wants to be loved for his money.
The question sits unanswered until a later scene when Jo writes to Laurie in England after Beth dies. She begs him to come home to the States and be with the family (but mostly with her). But instead of doing that, Laurie immediately goes to Amy in France to comfort her, proving that she's more important to him than her family, including Jo.
The other big challenge in adapting Little Women is the relationship between Jo and Professor Bhaer. Gabriel Byrne is twenty years older than Winona Ryder, so the age difference is intact. It's actually greater than the difference between Katharine Hepburn and Paul Lukas, who were only 12 years apart, but Hepburn played Jo a lot younger and Lukas was suave and worldly and kept calling her his "little friend." Consistent with the feminist tone of the film, Byrne's Bhaer treats Jo like an equal. He never directly criticizes her writing, but acknowledges her freedom to write whatever she wants (or feels the need to, because of commercial concerns). When she presses him, he asks if she truly likes what she's writing - and that question bothers her - but he's merely holding up a mirror so that she can evaluate the work herself.
In all things, this Professor Bhaer is there to gently usher Jo into maturity, both in how she thinks about her work and in how she thinks about romantic relationships. She was never able to take Laurie seriously, because their relationship was never serious. They were deeply fond of each other and connected in that way, but they were playmates, not true partners. Bhaer shows Jo a whole other way of relating to someone. It's healthy, it's mature, and his being older becomes an asset, not something creepy to have to work around.