Of all the artistic fruits of the baby-boom laborers now running Hollywood, one of the sweetest is the tenderness being bestowed on movie scripts that spring from childhood themes and stories. Steven Spielberg has long tapped the well of boyhood fantasy, of course, but now we’re seeing something remarkable: the literature of girlhood, translated with a wonderful modern verve — and with glorious results. Last winter, I heard more excited adult endorsement for Little Women than for a festival of vampire movies. This spring, I promise you, the grown-up-girl-on-the-street recommendation will be that you must see A Little Princess.
You really must, you know: Mexican-born Alfonso Cuaron’s evocation of the great girls’ novel by Frances Hodgson Burnett (who also wrote The Secret Garden) is magical. The story is about Sara Crew, the beautiful, rich little girl raised in India by her handsome, adoring widowed father (a Freudian dream come true!), who is sent to a harsh victorian-style boarding school in New York when her Papa goes off to World War I. For various reasons I won’t spoil for newcomers, Sara suffers terribly — the headmistress is a perfectly mean spinster — but through it all, she never loses sight of her own loveliness, or of the loveliness available in imagination (a successful psychoanalysis come true!). A Little Princess is lyrical, liberated by a sense of freedom quite modern in its buoyancy. Like Gillian Armstrong’s Little Women, it renovates a classic tale without sacrificing heritage.
About the only actor you’re likely to recognize is the redoubtable Eleanor Bron (Women in Love) as the awful headmistress, and she’s grand. But so are Liesel Matthews as Sara and Liam Cunningham as her Papa. All the little girls are princesses here; all the costumes and sets are opulently gorgeous. The script, by Richard LaGravenese and Elizabeth Chandler, is simple but never simpering; the music, by Patrick Doyle, shimmers. There are moments in A Little Princess — particularly Cuaron’s Indian play-within-the-play, which is nearly avant-garde in its conception — when you may just want to clap from pleasure. My advice to you is: Go ahead, you’re a grown-up. A