The Virginian-Pilot
                             THE VIRGINIAN-PILOT 
              Copyright (c) 1994, Landmark Communications, Inc.

DATE: Wednesday, December 28, 1994           TAG: 9412280048
TYPE: Movie Review 
                                             LENGTH: Medium:   81 lines


THE SENSIBLE and level-headed treatment Gillian Armstrong gives to the latest film version of Louisa May Alcott's novel ``Little Women'' makes it one of the more pleasant surprises in the current rush of holiday releases. Sparked by a totally luminous and irresistible performance by Winona Ryder as Jo, the film refreshingly reminds us that film, even in an age of cynicism, still can depict the best in humanity.

``Little Women'' has been filmed three times before this. The first was a 1918 silent movie. The second, and the most heralded until now, was George Cukor's 1933 version, remembered primarily for Katharine Hepburn's energetically tomboyish portrayal of Jo. The big, splashy 1949 MGM edition starred June Allyson as Jo with Elizabeth Taylor, Janet Leigh and Margaret O'Brien as her sisters.

The March sisters are dressed in more threadbare clothes this time, and the outlook is more realistic. The setting is Concord, Mass. Father is off fighting in the Civil War. The family exists in near-poverty. In an opening scene, one of the local snobs comments, ``They were once one of our better families.''

Marmee (Susan Sarandon) and her four daughters survive very nicely on standards rather than luxuries. Jo is a free spirit, a tomboy who wants to become a writer. (Quite a shocking ambition for a woman in this 1868 setting). We have Trini Alvarado as Meg, Samantha Mathis and Kirsten Dunst as Amy and Claire Danes as Beth. It's not an all-star cast, but there is not a weak performance.

It is Ryder who drives the film. She is less flamboyant than Hepburn was in the role but much more vulnerable. This Jo is putting up a bit of a false front - not nearly as sure of herself as she pretends to be. She must fight for a career in a man's world, and only slowly does she learn that she will succeed only when she writes about herself.

Director Armstrong has slowed the movie down and given it a sense of reality - never preaching and never adding a 1990s feminist message. Instead, the film stays firmly within its time. It has been faithful to the book even though it does add some of the philosophy of author Alcott's progressive family. Marmee does talk about how girls shouldn't be made to wear corsets and need just as much exercise as boys. However, the sense of 1868, and ensuing generations, is preserved throughout.

So is the sense of sentimentality. The film is unabashedly sentimental. Yes, death does come to the March family, but doesn't it to all families? Why, in the name of ``sophistication,'' has the movie industry, in general, refused in recent years to tell such stories.

Aside from Ryder, who may get an Oscar nomination for her performance, the only March sister to stand out is little Kirsten Dunst, as the bratty younger Amy. It is a fitting companion piece to her vampire child in ``Interview With the Vampire.'' She's likely to get an Oscar nod for ``Vampire,'' but she proves here that she is natural and versatile.

Christian Bale has the thankless task of playing Laurie, the perfect guy from down the road - a handsome young man who also respects women and is rich. Through the decades, readers have pulled for Jo and Laurie to somehow make it to the altar, but they never quite do. Gabriel Byrne is cast as the wise, scholarly Professor Bhaer, the German immigrant Jo meets when she sets out on her own.

All the reasons that Louisa May Alcott's book has survived for more than 125 years and remains a best seller are preserved in this film version. The connections between four generations of a family's women are believably dramatized. In the process, there is the sure indication that Winona Ryder is going to be a movie star for years to come. MEMO: MOVIE REVIEW

``Little Women''

Cast: Winona Ryder, Gabriel Byrne, Trini Alvarado, Kirsten Dunst,

Susan Sarandon, Christian Bale, Eric Stoltz, Claire Danes, Samantha

Mathis, John Neville, Mary Wickes

Director: Gillian Armstrong

Screenplay: Robin Swicord, based on the novel by Louisa May Alcott

MPAA rating: PG

Mal's rating: three and a half stars

Locations: Janaf and Main Gate in Norfolk; Columbus, Kemps River,

Lynnhaven 8 and Surf-N-Sand in Virginia Beach by CNB