A Little Princess
One of the great mysteries of the cinema is the great result achieved by some directors with children. Cuarón isn’t one of them, and he isn’t particularly good with adults, he doesn’t understand comedy, has no real feeling for drama, and probably made A Little Princess as a cold calculation toward the Harry Potter films—it certainly looks that way. If so, he has his reward, but the means he employed to achieve it have transcended such a result in a way that is something to behold, even if Chicago and New York were fooled (Maslin going so far as to dispraise Shirley Temple in awe).
Cuarón, whose direction looks negligible at best, has successfully keyed the mise en scène of this work to John Singer Sargent’s paintings (with perhaps a touch of Whistler mirrored in Eleanor Bron’s white streak of hair), and he has done so in a way more thoroughgoing than I can have imagined before seeing it, down to the last detail of set dressing and costumes, so that with the least ability or honesty of purpose he might have carried this film off in spite of his evident limitations, but Cuarón has created nonetheless a memorable work of art, if only by overbidding, and that includes the casting of Bron and Arthur Malet. The former, well, after a clumsy attempt by the director at comedy amongst the little boarding school girls, the scene is abruptly saved when she walks her face into a door, smack into it, and this after reflecting in her performance the minutest grandeur of the décor, which is so profound it produces incidental effects such as lifelike puddles and rain outside the window and a WWI trench and dead leaves (which, characteristically, the director rather overdoes toward the end).
I’ve never seen a film in which art direction figured so preponderantly, yet the credits hardly explain it, so that it must be supposed that Cuarón is responsible, but how or why exactly is another mystery.
Can it be, do you suppose, that the idea came and was so inspiring that Sargent simply took over the production, keeping every hand busy in costumes and set construction, until everyone had outdone themselves, leaving Cuarón the shoemaker to wonder at his elves? Is art direction perhaps his true calling? Or has he played A Little Princess down for the American market, leaving ample evidence of his genius as a calling card for any with eyes to see?
Anyway, John Singer Sargent’s is incontestably present. Bron and Malet inhabit it as though A Little Princess were a serious film, which in a very strange and mysterious way it is, because Sargent is a painter not given his due, an inheritance down to succeeding generations which this film records amidst a disinherited vision of cinema devoid of help or succor, like the little girl whose father was thought to be lost in The Great War...