Natural Born Kindness

In a movie world dominated by aggressive male fantasies such as "Disclosure" and "Dumb and Dumber," Little Women seems daringly unfashionable. Louisa May Alcott in the era of Courtney Love and Sharon Stone? Fortunately, neither director Gillian Armstrong nor screenwriter Robin Swicord seems the least bit daunted presenting the March sisters to a '90s audience, with all their 19th-century New England virtues and vanities intact. This lovely, lived-in "Little Women" confidently settles into the domestic rituals of the March household, paying loving attention to the details, sure that these four sisters' journey of self-discovery will seduce us anew.

Winona Ryder holds center stage as headstrong Jo, the aspiring writer. Trini Alvarado is responsible, conventional Meg, who falls for the stiff young tutor played by Eric Stoltz. Claire Danes has an otherworldly calm as sickly, goodhearted Beth: she makes virtue so natural it takes the sappy curse off the role. And Kirsten Dunst perfectly captures the blond prima donna Amy at 12 -- before the older, spookier Samantha Mathis takes over as Amy grown up.

Ryder is captivating -- so much so that she throws the emotional balance a bit out of whack. She's sexier and more vulnerable than the tomboy Jos we're used to, like Katharine Hepburn's coltish Jo in the 1933 movie. Viewers who remember director Armstrong's "My Brilliant Career," in which the fiercely independent Judy Davis rejects Sam Neill to pursue her writing, will be reminded of that scene when Jo turns down the marriage proposal of her best friend Laurie (Christian Bale). Most people will be nonplused by her decision, because Ryder and Bale seem so right for each other. But the disappointment is proof that the movie is alive: the filmmakers have made us members of the family, and we want to argue with their romantic choices.

The small role of mom remains a problem. Susan Sarandon's transcendentalist Marmee isn't sickly sweet -- she's been turned into a 19th-century feminist, and Sarandon gives her as much haggard reality as she can -- but she's little more than a dispenser of progressive platitudes.

"Little Women" may seem poky initially, but it has a strong, lyric emotional undertow that gathers force. By the time the story expands to New York (where Jo meets Gabriel Byrne's Friedrich Bhaer, an itinerant German philosophy professor) and France (where Amy is studying art), you're caught up in its epic intimacy. Alcott's sense, sensibility and sentiment find new life in this handcrafted valentine.