Frances Hodgson Burnett was one of my favourite writers as a child, and I read both A Little Princess and A Secret Garden countless times. There have been many fine movie and TV adaptations of her work, but Alfonso Cuaron’s visually sumptuous version of A Little Princess has to be among the best. I watched it a couple of times in close succession on satellite TV since setting up this blog, meaning to write a full review, but, once again, time got away from me, and this will be a short belated piece – though I did get around to gathering together some lovely stills. My favourite is the picture I’ve put at the top of this posting, of Liesel Matthews as Sara Crewe dreaming over a book in the window – a pose which really gets the essence of the character.
Since Hodgson Burnett’s book is set in Victorian London, and seems to be swathed in darkness and fog, I was rather surprised to hear this production had moved the story to New York during the First World War, and, when I saw the vivid colours of its opening, a dream-like sequence set in India, I wondered if it would get the spirit of the book. I think it does – and it is also a great film in its own right. The whole film is full of dazzling colour, but the dark shadows I remember from the book are there too, especially in the street scenes. I can certainly see why cinematographer Emmanuel Lubeszki got an Oscar nomination.
Liesel Matthews gives an impressively quiet, self-contained performance as Sara, the little girl who goes from riches to rags and back again after being enrolled at a school run by the quietly sinister Miss Minchin (Eleanor Bron) while her father, Captain Crewe (Liam Cunningham) goes to fight in the First World War. Some of the most moving sequences come when the film cuts to and fro between scenes of Sara at a party with some of the other girls at school and agonising footage of her father being injured and left for dead in the trenches. I know all this isn’t in the book, but I think it does build on passages of Burnett’s where Sara thinks about what her father is going through and imagines what it would be like to be a soldier suffering on the battlefield. Also, as it is probably impossible really to show children in a film suffering as much cruelty as Sara does in the book, bringing in the war is a different way to include the darkness which is such an essential part of this story.
However, I don’t want to give the impression that this is a depressing film to watch, because it isn’t at all. It’s full of the “magic” of imagination which is at the centre of the book, with the most memorable sequence being the dream-like section where the wounded soldier next door decides to transform the lives of the two little girls in the attic, Sara and her equally downtrodden friend Becky (Vanessa Lee Chester) by getting his servant to furnish their bleak room while they sleep – and even serve up a hot breakfast. I remember enjoying this part every time I read the book – and it has just the same quality in the film.
The ending is changed for the movie, with the injured soldier next door turning out not to be just a friend of Sara’s father, as in the book, but Captain Crewe himself, temporarily blinded, suffering from amnesia and not realising that his own daughter is the ill-treated scullery maid in the neighbouring attic. This change could easily make the story become too sentimental, but I think the film just about gets away with it because of the power of Liam Cunningham’s performance in these scenes. Also, I’m sure the quality of the screenplay, by Richard LaGravenese and Elizabeth Chandler, has a lot to do with the success of this melodramatic plot twist.
I’m not sure whether my favourite recent Hodgson Burnett adaptation is this movie or Agnieszka Holland’s The Secret Garden (1993) – yet another one I hope to write about in future.