I liked this second BBC adaptation much more than the first. I wasn't sure about it after the opening scene in which the four sisters cut off locks of hair to send to Father, but director Vanessa Caswill shoots them in extremely intimate close-ups, giving the activity an off-putting, seductive quality. Caswill and cinematographer Piers McGrail love focusing on warm, sensual details all through the mini-series and it reminded me of Martin Scorsese's The Age of Innocence. But The Age of Innocence is all about seduction and sensuality. Little Women is about compassion and wisdom. Especially in that opening scene (but also a later one when Meg's friends are getting her ready for a ball), the sumptuous focus on hands and hair and ribbons and undergarments are out of place.
Caswill also uses the technique on household items and nature photography and other places where it's not as jarring and I was able to just enjoy the beauty of the images. The look of the production is gorgeous.
Maya Hawke (daughter of Uma Thurman and Ethan Hawke) is maybe my favorite Jo so far. She's certainly up there with Winona Ryder and Saoirse Ronan. She's natural in the role and never feels like she's merely acting boyish or hot-tempered. She struggles to control her tongue, but not because anyone wants her to be modest and quiet. She struggles the same way a character like Han Solo does: because when she speaks without thinking, she alienates or even hurts people without meaning to. Hawke is wonderfully convincing in her struggle to control that.
Willa Fitzgerald and Annes Elwy are good as Meg and Beth. And Kathryn Newton is perfectly beautiful as teenaged Amy. She also plays the younger version of Amy though and that doesn't work as well. After seeing how nice it was to let Amy be a child in the anime series and the 1994 version, I've sort of lost patience with watching older actors play the spoiled, self-absorbed child. I'm kind of scared about how that will effect my enjoyment of Florence Pugh in the role when I re-watch that.
This adaptation doesn't really belong to Amy though, so I learned not to care so much about how it handles her. Her eventual romance with Laurie (Jonah Hauer-King) just sort of goes through the motions without showing the couple's love and support for each other in Europe or even hinting at a deeper attraction until its time for them to get engaged.
In contrast, I deeply believed Laurie's feelings for Jo. The series has a few scenes that show him clearly in love with her and wanting to talk to her about it, but she keeps putting him off. She tries to be gentle about it, but he persists until it finally comes to a head and he ends up sitting in the grass, bawling, the only version of Laurie I've seen do that. It's heartbreaking and real and I loved it.
This version pays a little more attention to Beth than most (with the exception of the 1994 movie) and deals with her realization that she's dying and her reluctance to burden anyone else with that information. There's still no beating Claire Danes' version, but this one is especially tragic.
It's even more tragic thanks to the MVP of the series, Emily Watson as Marmee. More than any other version so far, Watson's Marmee struggles hard with raising these girls by herself. She's not equipped for it, neither with the support structure she needs nor even with the inner resources. As she tells Jo in the book, she herself struggles with anger every single day and that comes out in Watson's performance. But what also comes out is her deep, deep love for her daughters and her husband and her perseverance to keep her anger and despair under control for their sakes. She's inspiring.
Dylan Baker is good as Mr March and the script even gives him some nice, extra conversations with Jo where he tries to mentor her on writing (he's been working on a book of his own for a couple of decades) and she ends up mentoring him instead. Baker also gets to show Dad's grief over Beth, which is lovely. Mr March is often very stoic through all of that in other versions. (I did have a little trouble accepting Baker in the part just because I love his hilariously evil character in The Good Wife and this was such a different role, but that's not his fault. He's great as both characters and I have new respect for him as an actor watching this and The Good Wife so close together.)
The two most famous actors in this don't get a lot to do. Michael Gambon is Laurie's grandfather and he's great as always, but the script doesn't go too deeply into his relationship with Beth. They have a nice scene or two together, but a more touching scene is with Laurie when the elder Mr Laurence offers to accompany his grandson to Europe as an escape from Jo.
Angela Lansbury is Aunt March, but she's underused, too. It's always nice to see Lansbury and she does a fine job with Aunt March's mood swings between snobbishly overbearing and surprisingly compassionate. I just wish there was more of her.
Finally, Mark Stanley plays Professor Bhaer and he's fine, too. He's ten years older than Maya Hawke, so the relationship isn't creepy. But Gillian Armstrong spoiled me with the 1994 version by having Bhaer be such a positive influence on Jo's transformation from dreaming child to functioning adult. 2017 Bhaer is handsome and gentle and supportive (when he insults Jo's sensationalist stories, it's an accident, because he's only seen them in print and doesn't know she's the writer). Armstrong showed me that Bhaer can be even more than that, though, so it's hard to go back to even a merely adequate interpretation of the character.
But while I pick on some of the characters that this version has made minor, I also adore the characters it puts in the spotlight: Jo, Marmee, and to a slightly lesser extent, Laurie. Jo carried me on her journey every step of the way and I ached for Marmee like I never have before. And I ached pretty hard for Laura Dern's version.
Four out of five letters from Father.