'Little Women': TV Review

Sure to produce some tears and some sentiment, but no big relevations.

Angela Lansbury towers over a solid cast in a respectful, rarely distinctive 'Masterpiece' adaptation of Louisa May Alcott's beloved novel.

Three years ago, The CW was developing Little Women as a TV series. In inimitable CW style, that adaptation of Louisa May Alcott's enduring novel would transplant the story to a postapocalyptic Philadelphia, infusing the familiar story of sisterhood, female empowerment and the dangers of scarlet fever with trendy dystopic tropes.

Such a take on Little Women never even made it as far as a pilot, but let it never be said that the creative talents behind the project didn't have a very specific — possibly awful — vision of why this oft-retold story required a new incarnation.

The same is not always true for the upcoming two-night, three-hour telling on Masterpiece, from writer Heidi Thomas (Call the Midwife) and director Vanessa Caswill. There's some sense of missed opportunity in how rarely this Little Women finds a distinctive way to view and interpret the travails of the March family, especially during the second episode, which lands several required emotional punches, but mostly meanders. Still, fans of the book will be pleased with the creators' relative fidelity to the source material, and will be appreciative of the strong, generation-spanning cast, led at one end by the four actresses in the title roles and at the other by Angela Lansbury, who rests on no laurels and steals her every scene.

It's doubtful at this point that a plot summary is required for Little Women. Caswill opens with a scene of girlish intimacy as the four March sisters dress and primp and preen and prepare excitedly for what they know will be a tempered Christmas because their father (Dylan Baker) is off serving as a chaplain for the Union Army. There's beautiful and assured Meg (Willa Fitzgerald), coltish and headstrong Jo (Maya Hawke), awkward and introverted Beth (Annes Elwy) and childish and mercurial Amy (Kathryn Newton). The brood is watched over by constant and dedicated Marmee (Emily Watson) and their adventures soon come to include boy-next-door Laurie (Jonah Hauer-King), who spends much time with his seemingly stern grandfather, Mr. Laurence (Michael Gambon).

Thomas and Caswill's approach to Little Women falls somewhere between the dark-and-gritty DC Comics-style version of the story and the sort of picture-book period costume drama framing that the story has generally gotten, landing closer to the latter. Some effort goes into pointing out the class differences among the Marches, Laurences and the German immigrant family in town whose low-income existence gives our characters the chance to be periodically noble, but also eventually causes trouble. Still, capturing the grand indignity and financial hit of losing a quarter's worth of pickled limes isn't the same as making the March girls look anything other than impeccably dressed and professionally coifed at all moments. When Meg gets a grand makeover to attend an upper-crust party, her transformation is more shrug than Cinderella. In addition to leaning on pretty but not purposeful stock nature footage, Caswill relies too heavily on "getting a makeover" montages which, when accompanied by the series' occasionally folksy score, make this feel like Lilith Fair Women. Let's just say you won't feel overwhelmed by the attempts at realism.

The property's feminist foundation doesn't require unearthing from a modern storyteller. Alcott was telling a story of girls becoming women and each finding their own place in a world that would prefer to keep them in prescribed roles, so it's not like any screenwriter gets to go, "I'm doing Little Women, but I'm accentuating the empowerment." If anything, this new incarnation has less interest in Marmee and the choices she makes in her unanticipated elevation to head of the family, at least compared with the 1994 Gillian Armstrong film in which Susan Sarandon's Marmee often felt as central as her daughters. Part of the challenge of the property is in trying to see how the choices, or lack of choices, being made by Meg and Beth and Amy are as important to the story as Jo's much more obvious journey to find her own voice, avoid compromises and find love on her own terms. Adapters and readers tend to be most interested in Jo, though I'll say that both Beth and Amy feel more understood than usual here.

Like most general fans of the property, I've come to the book and each adaptation at different ages, so it's hard for me to know if it's Thomas' take on the Laurie-Jo relationship that makes its full arc feel more satisfying and comprehensible here than I've ever found it before, or if it's just my mindset. I also can't say for sure if it's good that I didn't feel my usual wild swings of emotion regarding that relationship, because the last two hours have almost nothing else driving them, other than a couple of beats of sadness that work well. I'm inclined to guess this will be a point of real disappointment for some viewers.

A modern prism casts certain story elements in a new light. When Jo says, "Being born a girl is the most disappointing thing that ever happened to me," you can see how it might be spun as a deeper musing on gender identity rather than gender norms. It's not. There are early hints that Beth's social discomfort might be something a contemporary audience could read as being on the autism spectrum. It's not. There's no need for an adaptation to take leaps like this, obviously, and for plenty of viewers (most viewers?), this project's total lack of audacity will be an asset.

Screen newcomer Hawke, resembling an appealingly distracting combination of her parents, Ethan Hawke and Uma Thurman, is perfectly cast. She's meant as an ungainly, unstudied contrast to MTV's Scream star Fitzgerald, and the effect is well achieved. Hawke has no chemistry with more-dimple-than-spark co-star Hauer-King, but she nails the confusion of having gifts and goals that don't line up with those expected of her. The other March standout is Newton, ubiquitous on the big and small screens last year, who charts Amy's more-clear-than-usual growth from easily hateable child — there is no forgiving her exploits with Jo's manuscript, darnit — to adult.

Newton and Hawke also benefit from getting to share multiple scenes with Lansbury, giving acidic line readings and regal bearing to her every appearance as the girls' aunt. Gambon elevates thin dialogue by his mere stentorian utterances, but Lansbury raises extended chunks of Little Women to another level.

When Lansbury is onscreen, Little Women makes you go, "Oh. This is why we needed this." Too much of the rest of the miniseries is a great story, decently told and an acceptable diversion, but unlikely to replace the Katharine Hepburn or Winona Ryder versions in many hearts.

Cast: Maya Hawke, Kathryn Newton, Annes Elwy, Willa Fitzgerald, Emily Watson, Dylan Baker, Angela Lansbury, Michael Gambon, Jonah Hauer-King
Screenwriter: Heidi Thomas
Premieres: May 13 (PBS)