Little Women (1994)
This adaptation of Louisa May Alcott's classic novel gives you a warm welcome with its exquisite production design which transports you effectively back to the 1860s. Granted, it's a peculiarly smug version of the 1860s, despite the March family's ostensible financial hardships, but then again this is a story from the upper/middle class with its strong focus on mannerisms and refinement. Our main protagonist, Jo March (Winona Ryder), is the second of four sisters growing up in Concorde, Massachusetts with their mother Marmee (Susan Sarandon). Jo is an early feminist; she doesn't want her life to be about marrying well. Instead, she has ambitions as a writer and rejects the advances from her charming next door neighbour Laurie (Christian Bale). Little Women quickly draws you into the sisters' tight-knit life, with their easily forgotten quarrels and defining but never disruptive differences. As directed by Aussie filmmaker Gillian Anderson (My Brilliant Career, Mrs. Soffel), the picture has an appealing innocence to it. And the young and talented cast prosper under Anderson's steady direction: Ryder gives one of the best performances of her young career, Claire Danes is daringly effective as the sickly Beth, and Christian Bale is brilliant as Laurie. He gives the film the necessary bite and zest through his character's small imperfections. Even the somewhat unorthodox casting of Gabriel Byrne as Friedrich Baer pays dividends – his connection with Ryder is strangely believable. Thomas Newman's uplifting score caps off the film, and an inspired year for him (after fine contributions to The Shawshank Redemption and The War). This adaptation of Little Women has got all the elements that great period drama escapism should have.