You might’ve heard Alfonso Cuaron’s name a lot this year, as he won an obscene amount of awards, including his second Best Director Oscar, for his autobiographical Netflix film Roma. But he’s been famous in movie lovers hearts for many years, with 2013’s Gravity (when he became the first Mexican to win a Best Director Oscar), before that his 2006 sci-fi masterpiece Children of Men (my vote as the best movie of the 2000’s), his entry into the Harry Potter canon with Prisoner of Azkaban (often pointed to as the pinnacle of the series), and his multi-Oscar nominated 2001 sex-comedy/road trip-drama Y tu Mama Tambien. But before all of those, in his English language debut in 1995, Cuaron gifted us with one of the great family movies of all time, his adaptation of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s A Little Princess.
Hidden Gems: A Little Princess
By Kyle Lee
June 5, 2019
10 year old Sara Crewe (Liesel Matthews) lives happily in India with her father, a wealthy British aristocrat (Liam Cunningham, almost unrecognizable so many years before he became Davos Seaworth on Game of Thrones). She loves telling stories to her friends based on Hindu mythology, playing and carefree and happy. But Sara’s exciting life is upended by the outbreak of World War I, and her father volunteering to serve in the military. Before he leaves, Captain Crewe sets Sara up in a girl’s boarding school in New York City. It quickly becomes obvious how much money the Crewe’s have when Sara is put in the schools largest room and given all the accommodations she needs. This wealth ingratiates Sara immediately to the school’s severe headmistress, Miss Minchin (Eleanor Bron). Ms. Minchin doesn’t like Sara, who even at 10 years old corrects Minchin’s lazy French and is lauded by the schools French teacher as a natural. But Sara comes with a lot of money, and Minchin likes money, so she mostly swallows her dislike of Sara.
Sara is an instant hit with the other girls in the school, with her exotic stories, imagination, advanced education, and relentless kindness. All of the girls, save for the school bully Lavinia (Taylor Fry), look to Sarah immediately as a leader. The girls even learn to start treating the school’s scullery maid Becky (Vanessa Lee Chester) differently. Becky is not only a maid, she’s also an orphan who lives in the building’s attic when she’s not cleaning, and she’s black. The girls don’t know what that means or why it means something, but it does mean something, right Sara? Sara doesn’t treat Becky any differently, and the other girls then follow suit. This makes the turn of the plot both more interesting, and more powerful, as Sara’s kindness is put to the test when her father is reported killed in action, and all of his financial assets frozen until a will can be sorted out. In Miss Minchin’s infinite kindness, she doesn’t kick Sara out of the house, but instead moves her upstairs with Becky into the rat infested attic where she’ll work as a maid as well.
A Little Princess is ultimately a movie about the power of empathy and kindness. Sara doesn’t let herself be dragged down when she loses everything. Her perspective changes, and she sees how life can be difficult for those without money, but she doesn’t lose her innate decency as a person. In fact, the girls still in school rally to her side whenever possible, as they begin all manner of shenanigans against the tyrannical Ms. Minchin, emboldened by Sara’s influence upon them. Even the neighbors, chimney sweepers, and others in the neighborhood take notice of this charismatic girl and her winning smile that can't be taken away. It’s not always so easy to smile and be happy when you’ve got nothing, but Sara keeps her head up and her heart open. It’s such a great moral lesson as a family movie, the powerful simplicity of inner strength.
The movie is absolutely beautiful to look at, as shot by legendary cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, who has shot all of Cuaron’s movies save for Harry Potter and Roma (which Cuarón shot himself, and won an Oscar for). It was Lubezki’s first Oscar nomination and it was well deserved. The production design (by the great Bo Welch, most famous for his work with Tim Burton) deserves attention as well, with the school/house acting almost as a character unto itself. The movie has a feeling of magical realism in the way Lubezki shoots it and Welch designed it, almost storybook like. We sometimes feel like maybe we’re inside of the fantastical stories that Sara loves to tell. This combined with Cuaron’s storytelling genius really makes for a truly magical experience. The movie feels like reading a book in childhood, a fairy tale set in early 20th century New York City, or remembering your favorite stories from your youth.
The movie isn’t perfect, as some of the acting from the young girls is as stilted as you expect even from the best child actors, but it always still works. This is a fantasy and we don’t require intense realism in order for the movie to succeed. Many of the supporting performances are just this side of caricature, but again it works, mainly because Cuaron finds the right tone in which to encase their arch-ness and still be effective to the story. Eleanor Bron, most widely known as the female lead in The Beatles’ movie Help!, is the best of the bunch as the heartless Miss Minchin. She’s cold and callous and hates Sara immediately, though we see in her eyes that she loves the money young Sara brings in. The turn in her eyes when she gets to treat the now penniless Sara like garbage is really chilling sometimes. But young Liesel Matthews, as Sara, really carries the movie well. Her 1,000 watt smile, piercing eyes, and compassion overcome any drawbacks the acting might present.
It might sound like a bit of a downer if you just read the plot description, but really it’s a childhood fantasy adventure story, and those rarely come and go without a happy ending. A Little Princess is a movie that respects its audience, doesn’t talk down to it, and doesn’t feel the need to pack a bunch of action in to try and keep your attention. Cuaron knows that we are empathetic creatures, and we innately want young Sara to succeed. “Beating the bad guys” just looks different in some stories than in others. Frances Hodgson Burnett’s other most famous story, The Secret Garden, was also made into a terrific family movie two years prior to this movie that would make for an amazing double feature if you wanted a terrific Hidden Gem night home with the family.