Every generation probably deserves its own version of “Little Women” – having previously been adapted in 1933, ‘49 and ‘94 – and a new 21st-century “Masterpiece” version of Louisa May Alcott’s story in conjunction with the BBC, turns out to be natural and charming, featuring a breakthrough performance by Maya Hawke.
Hawke – the daughter of actors Ethan Hawke and Uma Thurman – plays the self-sufficient Jo, the second oldest of the March sisters, and a feminist icon for our times. She and the other young actresses are flanked by a truly first-rate cast in this three-hour production that’s being spread over two nights, including Emily Watson as their mother, along with Michael Gambon, Angela Lansbury and Dylan Baker.
For those a little rusty on the book or who snoozed through English lit, the story begins during the Civil War, with the March girls trying to get by while their father (Baker) is off serving as a chaplain in the Union army. The ambitious Jo yearns to become a writer, and resists the attempts by Laurie (Jonah Hauer-King), the wealthy if somewhat lonely boy who lives nearby, to woo her.
Growing up against the backdrop of the war presents a range of difficulties, separate from the sibling rivalry between Jo and Amy (Kathryn Newton, featured in the recent movie “Blockers”). Willa Fitzgerald and Annes Elway ably round out the sibling quartet as Meg and the fragile Beth, respectively.
Written by Heidi Thomas (a PBS veteran with “Call the Midwife” and “Cranford”), and directed by Vanessa Caswill, “Little Women” remains a classic coming-of-age story, with the customary elements of love and sacrifice. Yet where this latest production – which has already aired in the U.K. – really shines is in capturing Jo’s independence, as she chafes against the strictures of the time.
Jo has always been a standout role, and Hawke – in her TV debut – makes the most of it, in advance of joining the upcoming third season of “Stranger Things.” (In a nice bit of symmetry, her co-star in that Netflix drama, Winona Ryder, played Jo in the 1994 movie version.)
“Tears are an unmanly weakness,” Jo says at one point, a characterization that seems more profound – filtered through the mores of the time – given her own steely resolve.
It’s always a challenge tackling such a familiar and beloved story, and bringing enough freshness or relevance to justify devoting three hours to it. Still, it’s hard to find many weaknesses – manly or otherwise – in this latest take on “Little Women.”
“Little Women” premieres May 13 at 8 p.m. on PBS.