01/09/1995 at 01:00 AM EST
Winona Ryder, Susan Sarandon, Trini Alvarado, Samantha Mathis, Kirsten Dunst
, Claire Danes
, Christian Bale
This is at least the fourth screen version of the classic Louisa May Alcott novel that has kept adolescent readers up way past their bedtimes since 1868, and it just may be the best. Even more than the standout 1933 film (with Katharine Hepburn perfectly cast as Jo), this fondly faithful adaptation of the March sisters' saga captures the novel's inspiring mix of feminism and family values. Alcott fans—calling all girls!—will find themselves caught up once more as Jo (Ryder) struggles to become a writer; Meg (Alvarado) finds romance; Beth (Danes) battles illness; Amy (Dunst and, later, as an adult, Mathis) strives to stop being bratty; and all four sisters try to make life easier for their beleaguered mother (Sarandon). Will guys get it? Sure, and some will even enjoy it if they let themselves.
Credit director Gillian Armstrong (My Brilliant Career) and screenwriter Robin Swicord with making a movie that is the equivalent of a cozy curl-up with the book on a winter afternoon. Although Women is an ensemble film, Ryder—alternately glowing and glowering as the fiercely determined Jo—burns brightest. She couldn't be better. Dunst and Alvarado also make strong impressions; so does Bale, who, as Laurie, the rich kid next door, is appealingly dashing. Minor complaint: Sarandon's constant moral hectoring ("I would rather Meg marry a poor man for love than marry a wealthy man and lose her self-respect") grates. Lighten up, Marmee. (PG)