Director Gillian Armstrong's feminist spin on classic material retains the moving humanity of Louisa May Alcott's novel while reworking it with welcome freshness. LITTLE WOMEN introduces us to the March family, a struggling, close-knit clan living in Concord, Massachusetts, at the time of the Civil War. The eldest daughter, Meg (Trini Alvarado), is pretty, conventional, and vain. Jo (Winona Ryder) is a hot-tempered tomboy who chafes against Victorian restraints on young women and dreams of a great literary career. Beth (Claire Danes) is musical and pathologically shy, a saint on earth. Amy (Kirsten Dunst, then Samantha Mathis) is artistic and amusingly selfish. Their beloved Marmee (Susan Sarandon) is the anchor that stabilizes the family while her husband is away fighting in the Civil War. The Marches have seen better days financially, but the spirit and invention of the girls are unquenchable as they struggle towards adulthood and overcome their individual weaknesses. Robin Swicord's screenplay adaptation is very free, adding details of Alcott's life to the familiar events of the novel. At times, the overriding political correctness is a bit heavy-handed (one doesn't recall the Marches being quite so taken up with the cause of the "blacks," as they are anachronistically referred to here, or with women's suffrage). Quibbles aside, Armstrong can only be praised for her firm control over the material, steadfast refusal to slip into bathos, and acute visual and emotional sense. The strength of her vision overrides some acting weaknesses as well as the superfluous revisionism; visually, it is easily one of the most beautiful movies of the year. Geoffrey Simpson's camera records the four seasons with remarkable vividness, and the production is appropriately rich, full of dark wood surfaces, comforting quilts, and gleaming cook pots and china.