A little Princess – Alfonso Cuarón steps out into a magical world of green. (Film Review)
Without having seen Alfonso Cuarón’s Sólo Con Tu Pareja (Only with your Partner), I’m forced to begin my journey through his films with A Little Princess. It’s a shame (I just haven’t been able to get my hands on the film yet) because Sólo Con Tu Pareja is important in the green period, plus its the film he co-wrote with his brother that launched him into a Hollywood career, and two subsequent adaptations, (or remakes depending on your point of view) that have earned Cuarón a reputation for zigzagging across continents, as well as starting the complex relationship Cuarón always examines between narrative as a framework for history and the background as foreground in his work. Writing is something he will learn to keep a hold on, as we will see, because his important points around history and social context for human behaviour become impossibilities when he is partnered with the wrong writer.
A little Princess is an adaptation of the 1905 Frances Hodgson Burnett book of the same title, but more importantly it is a remake of the 1939 Walter Lang film that starred Shirley Temple, that veered off the path of the book in bizarre directions such as regular horse rides instead of lessons and a very odd visit from Queen Victoria to grant a special favour. It was a film begging for a remake, particularly seeing as the original removed the all important Indian connection, that although mystical in its reverence is still respectful, and one that Cuarón takes up with relish. There are still great differences with the book, the most poignant being a shift from London to New York City, and the replacement of Becky the fourteen year old servant girl with an eight year old African-American Becky whom it is strong assumed, is a servant because of the colour of her skin. ‘A little Princess’ the book is strongly thought to be an embellishment of certain histories revealed in Jane Austen’s book ‘Emma’, the first two chapters of which were published in Cornhill Magazine in 1860, featuring a rich heiress with a mysterious past who is apparently abandoned at a boarding school. It is surely no accident that ‘Great Expectations’, being serialised in All Year Round in 1860 will become Cuaron’s next adaptation, again drenching the film in green, again moving it from London to New York, again using a background narrative to provide a social and historical context for a certain way of seeing the world.
A little Princess is visually lush, building on the spirit of Burnett’s book with its nod to magic realism and its addition of the Ramayana, delightfully performed in the imaginative world created by Sarah on visually abundant sets equally dominated by the colour green. The real world is, Cuarón building sets, costumes, skies and buildings in different shades of green, a stylistic trope clearly added not to bludgeon the viewer, but create a formative consistency to the importance of context. There’s no specific ‘symbol’ in Cuarón’s green, unless you include every symbol for green – nature, money, peace, go (as opposed to stop) relaxation and harmony, it is not a sublimated message overplayed, rather it is an exercise by a director whose vision always and will always encompass the greater story being told in the ‘background’. Context isn’t just important for Cuarón, it is his everything, and partly why I see these two adaptations as no accident of timing, but rather the early stages of a director with such grand aspirations his craft has not necessarily caught up with his talent just yet. A little Princess is heavily stylised, and Cuarón’s point of the influences of British (and foreign) history on American daily life do not come through the background as strongly as he will learn to do, but his ambitions are obvious and therefore manifest.
Cuarón will famously adapt another children’s story later, and it will become, arguably, the least of his contextualized histories, but like A Little Princess and Great Expectations, his Harry Potter flick has a different writer, but the precedence of A Little Princess in many ways becomes his credential for making what is the best Harry Potter of them all – or at least lifted the bar so that the final one could be brilliant. A Little Princess has that certain magical quality of all great children’s films where harsh living conditions are deemed opportunities to exhibit moral fortitude and just as all good things come to an end, so do all bad. Cuarón works very well with the young Liesel Matthews as Sarah Crew, the main character, both in action and point of view, which sets A Little Princess starkly apart from the other two great childs films of 1995, Toy Story and Babe, and this again is one of Cuarón’s primary points, that the story of the girl is her story and she tells her story and her story’s in order to first define and then transform her world. This is encapsulated in the repeated aphorism “Every little girl is a princess” which in the wrong hands could become appallingly glib, and even Matthews, with Lubezki’s smudged lens firmly planted on her giant weeping eyes, isn’t allowed to take the film in that direction, so that the mantra becomes a message of empowerment, a source of strength in difficult times, and a way of identifying when the young protagonist is being treated poorly.
All of this is wrapped up in a set-looking-set that adds to the story-teller context, and even Sarah herself isn’t ever allowed to look entirely natural, all that green implying nature and preventing it at the same time, that provides one of those modern miracles of cinema, a children’s story that is equally as enthralling for adults. Emmanuel Lubezki and Alfonso Cuarón both started their careers with Sólo Con Tu Pareja, and each has an astounding career ahead of them at this point, that will reach its zenith in the years to come with Children of Men and Gravity. However much of what makes them such a good combination is starting to show in A Little Princess, if in nothing more than each others ability to restrain the rampant enthusiasm of the other into a subtlety that will serve them both well, and provide the viewer with some of the best films to come out in the last twenty years.