I haven't read Louisa May Alcott's novel or seen any of the previous screen adaptations, so what I like so much about Gillian Armstrong's lovely new version, adapted by Robin Swicord, is basically what it says and does on its own terms. Set mainly in Concord, Massachusetts, during the Civil War, and focusing on a mother (Susan Sarandon) and four daughters (Winona Ryder, Trini Alvarado, Claire Danes, and Kirsten Dunst/Samantha Mathis), the film has a fresh and imaginative feel for period detail that the talented cast--which also features Gabriel Byrne, Christian Bale, Eric Stoltz, John Neville, and Mary Wickes--obviously benefits from. The craft, intelligence, story-telling ability, and feeling for character that Armstrong has already shown in My Brilliant Career and The Last Days of Chez Nous are revealed again with the magical creation of this film's universe. Armstrong, as an Australian, brings an outsider's perspective to the material, revealing facets and nuances of the American past that natives might be less likely to discover. Sentimental, romantic, and nostalgic in spots, this movie still has a tough clear-headedness that isn't usually found in commercial movies nowadays, especially ones by male directors (evenThe Age of Innocence); maybe if you went back five decades to The Magnificent Ambersons you'd find something a little closer. Starts Wednesday, December 21, Water Tower.