A Little Princess

Rating *** A must see

Directed by Alfonso Cuaron

Written by Richard LaGravenese and Amy Ephron

With Liesel Matthews, Liam Cunningham, Eleanor Bron, and Errol Sitahal.

Alfonso Cuaron’s A Little Princess opened without the hype of such big-budget items as Batman Forever and Pocahontas. American children, as much products of our culture as any of us, may have to be coaxed into seeing a film that hasn’t been advertised on television. The movie was pulled from theaters about a month ago, but now it’s being rereleased. I’d advise all parents, even all grown-ups: Go.

When I was leaving the theater, I overheard a young girl disagreeing with her mother’s opinion that this film was inferior to the 1939 Shirley Temple version. Perhaps the child preferred this one because the filmmakers make few concessions to an adult perspective. The star, Liesel Matthews, isn’t as cute as Shirley Temple–a child actress Graham Greene described as a brazen trollop pandering to dirty old men. This movie, with its intentionally artificial, set-bound look, resembles a picture book come to life–it’s an open-sesame movie, an Arabian Nights adventure with a childlike aura and belief in magic.

The film opens in India. World War I has broken out, and Sara Crewe’s wealthy, upper-class father has enlisted. Because Sara (Matt-hews) is motherless, Captain Crewe (Liam Cunningham) brings her to Miss Minchin’s Select Seminary for Young Ladies in New York (set in London in Frances Hodgson Burnett’s book). But when Sara crosses the ocean, she brings India with her, transporting the mystery of the East to the drab West. Miss Minchin tries to replace Sara’s magic with hard, cold facts, but Sara resists, affirming her optimistic fantasies over Minchin’s pessimistic realities even after she loses her fortune and must labor for her keep.

Cuaron makes us feel the conflict between East and West visually as well as emotionally. In India the sand is the color of turmeric, the tropical air is spicy, “tigers sleep under trees,” ancient statues rise out of swimming holes like mythical creatures, children share the cooling waters with pachyderms, and “the sky is the color of a peacock’s tail.” Storybook India is replaced by storybook New York, but New York as the kind of cruel place Jane Eyre or Oliver Twist might have encountered–a world of grandfather clocks and mahogany, mantelpieces and mice, eaves, attics, and propriety. Cuaron captures well Burnett’s description of it: “Everything was hard and polished. The very armchairs seemed to have hard bones in them.”

Miss Minchin (Eleanor Bron) is emblematic of repressive adults and authoritarian systems: she wants to extinguish Sara’s creative spark. Even before she’s under Miss Minchin’s thumb, Sara complains about the school’s formalities, the rules that make one “always feel as if one has done something wrong” without quite knowing why. When Sara’s father is apparently killed, she becomes the archetypal orphaned child confronting a hostile world, with Miss Minchin as her evil stepmother. Sara’s stories seem out of place in Miss Minchin’s world, but after the adults are in bed Sara tells a privileged circle of friends the tale of Rama and his princess: He tries to protect her by drawing a magic circle around her in the sand. But when Rama is gone the princess leaves the circle and is imprisoned by a ten-headed demon in the “attic” of a castle, prefiguring Sara’s banishment to the attic of the seminary. Sara identifies with the princess–her mantra is “All women are princesses. It is our right.”

Sara believes in magic, and Cuaron communicates this belief with his own cinematic magic, setting up coincidences and visual parallels. There are numerous connections drawn between the war and life in the seminary, between the teeming streets and the comparative safety of life behind the school’s walls, and between Rama and Captain Crewe (Cunningham also plays Rama in Sara’s fantasies). Just after the ten-headed demon shoots ten arrows around Rama in Sara’s story, releasing thick clouds of poisonous yellow smoke, Cuaron cuts to Captain Crewe in the trenches, clouds of tear gas threatening to engulf him. In the next shot Sara is trying metaphorically to dissipate the school’s poisonous atmosphere by blowing out the candles at her tenth birthday party, but Minchin’s reality wins out: we see Sara’s father bombed in the trenches. Now a penniless orphan, Sara is banished to the attic by Miss Minchin, who gloats: “That’s the reality of the situation….I expect you to remember you’re not a princess anymore.” But Sara ignores her admonition, turning to her story for comfort and drawing a circle around herself to sleep in just as Rama drew a circle around his princess. As she pours out her grief to her doll, a parting gift from her father, we’re reminded of what he told her when he said good-bye: “Dolls make the very best friends. Just because they can’t speak doesn’t mean they can’t listen. Magic has to be believed. That’s the only way it’s real.”

The power of belief in A Little Princess is strong, perhaps partly because Sara’s tales have their roots in Hinduism: her storytelling is akin to meditation; she’s capable of transporting herself to another place. Every time she tells a tale the world drops away, and Cuaron shows the other characters falling under the same spell. The power of enchantment in Sara comes from a very human need to transform her existence, to make her life an adventure.

Of course believers can always see evidence of magical transformations and miracles. It doesn’t mean they really happened. And adults often question the efficacy of such beliefs. Is all magic then childish escapism? Maybe the need for fantasy is too strong, maybe it’s even a force for the good. When Sara is chastised in the novel for making up stories, she says, “There are much more splendid stories in Revelation. Just look and see! How do you know mine are fairy stories?” Her life in the attic is an adventure to her: “[Life] is a story,” she says. “Everything’s a story. You, Ermengarde, are a story–I am a story. Miss Minchin is a story.” As Friedrich Nietzsche wrote in The Will to Power, “The will to appearance, to illusion, to deception…counts as more profound, primeval, ‘metaphysical’ than the will to truth, to reality.”

After her father’s death, Sara’s faith in the goodness of the world is shaken. But like George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life, she’s saved from despair by her own generous impulses. And like George Bailey’s joy, hers is enhanced by the anguish that precedes it. Reduced to a life of drudgery, Sara gives up, saying, “It’s all make-believe. There is no magic.” Then a boy gives her money, despite the admonitions of his mother, and with it she buys a sweet from a bakery. Just as she’s about to eat it in the teeming, Dickensian street she sees a family selling flowers: two girls with hunger in their eyes and a gaunt mother in rags, a baby in her arms. Wordlessly, Sara gives her food to the youngest girl, who takes it eagerly. As Sara walks away, the mother stops her to give her a yellow flower, saying: “For the princess.” Walking home, Sara passes the house of an elderly neighbor who’s lost his son in the war. She places her dahlia, glistening with dew, in the door handles of the grieving father’s house, thus catching the eye of his Indian servant, Ram Dass (Errol Sitahal). Moved, he later takes pity on her and gives her food. It’s the confluence of such gestures of compassion that gives A Little Princess its rare power, the sense that angels of forgiveness are looking down and blessing us. The real magic, the film seems to say, is that we can touch each other so profoundly by offering help.

The generosity of Ram Dass restores Sara’s faith. In the morning she’s awakened by a gust of snow that blows the attic window open. Walking to it, she sees across the alley in the window opposite hers Ram Dass, his hands raised to the heavens; Sara too raises her arms in a silent “prayer.” Then, in a marvelously comical cut, bristles pop out of a smokestack followed by a soot-blackened head. The juxtaposition of purity and filth brings to mind William Blake’s “The Chimney Sweeper.” Little Tom Dacre, poisoning his lungs with soot by day, at night dreams “that thousands of sweepers, Dick, Joe, Ned, & Jack, / Were all of them locked up in coffins of black. / And by came an angel who had a bright key, / And he open’d the coffins and set them all free; / Then down a green plain leaping, laughing, they run, / And wash in a river, and shine in the Sun.”

In the end, nearly all the characters in A Little Princess are freed to shine in the sun. The beauty of New York is only hidden by the way the Minchins of the world look at it. In Jacques Tati’s Playtime we glimpse the Eiffel Tower only once, in a gleaming reflection on the glass door of a high-rise. The Parisians are too busy to see it. Similarly, in A Little Princess the garret towers of the old seminary are seen most clearly in their true beauty through their reflection in a puddle. Minchin simply tramples through it, obscuring the view, but Sara is attuned to it. As she toils away, raking piles of wet autumn leaves, their rich colors make them more nature’s gift than man’s burden. She’s gathering in beauty.