A Little Princess
cenes is a new column here at Stylus, applying the idea behind the long-running Seconds: Perfect Moments in Pop series to the world of cinema. In each piece, a writer will tackle a particular scene—or even a shot—much in the same way Seconds attempts to dissect a significant moment within a song. The approach is up to the writer. They may analyze the scene from a technical standpoint, discuss the dramatic elements in play, talk about what it may mean to them personally, or take the concept in another direction entirely. Enjoy.
When describing a film as earnest as a child, any trace of irony is a cruel disservice. Let me freely admit, therefore, the terms of A Little Princess. This movie is about the transcendent powers of imagination. Angelic choirs and windswept locks of hair highlight the bravery and nobility of children. The story periodically trifles with pseudo-Indian fairy-tales (characterized by cheesy sitar music), wanders plot lines of amnesia, and concludes in an embrace that ends rivalries and changes characters. The moral: every girl is a princess. Abandon all cynicism, ye who enter here. One scene in particular abandons adult inhibition, reveling in a surreal moment of pure joy.
Some plot context: The devoted father of Sara Crewe takes the girl to an American boarding school. After a childhood spent in India, Sara finds it difficult to adjust, but soon charms her classmates with her lively storytelling. Whenever reality presses too harshly, Sara retreats into her imagination, where romance and beauty reign supreme. But when headmistress Miss Minchin receives word of Captain Crewe’s death, she forces Sara to earn her living. Living in a damp garret, working as a drudge, Sara finds her stories insufficient. Just when her spirit seems crushed, Sara encounters Ram Dass, a turban-clad Indian, in the streets. Both a reminder of her past and a prophecy of her future, Ram Dass renews Sara’s spirits. As Sara reflects on her newfound hope, this delirious sequence captures her rebirth into the world of fantasy.
Before I whip myself into a frenzy describing the scene in question, let me briefly mention the craftsmanship of this talented film crew. Alfonso Cuarón (Y tu mamá también, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban) directs; this film remains his masterpiece. Art-directors Bo Welch and Cheryl Carasik brought the film a well-deserved Oscar nomination, as did DP Emmanuel Lubezki (The New World). Patrick Doyle (Sense & Sensibility, Gosford Park) wrote the soaring score, complete with a reedy-voiced girl singing, “and my heart cannot be / Kindled without you / Your heart will kindle my heart.” These artists create an expressionistic atmosphere as gutsy as twee gets.
As Sara lies in her dingy bed, she opens her eyes. The window mysteriously illuminates her looming garret. In a sudden swirl of snow and sitar music, the window suddenly bursts open. In a trance, Sara sits up and walks toward the light. Involuntarily, she subtly lifts her arms, but quickly regains composure. When Sara reaches the window, Ram Dass stands on the neighboring balcony, dressed in turban and golden robes, mustache perfectly oiled (the monkey he literally wears on his shoulder throughout most of the movie has thankfully disappeared). Grinning, he slowly raises his arms toward heaven in a ceremonious movement of greeting or worship. The horn blasts out a familiar theme and Sara, overjoyed, smiles and lifts her arms (completing her own shy gesture moments before).
Although surprised, Sara fully accepts that anything so magical could happen to her. Hands still lifted, she spontaneously begins to spin. In the most basic form of dancing, Sara’s figure becomes the picture of innocent ecstasy, obscured by thousands of giant snowflakes. The cinematography, focusing on Sara’s proffered hands or abstractly framing her in the barren attic, loses all self-consciousness, sacrificing all dignity for Sara’s joyful abandon. The benevolent Ram Dass laughs gently; his broad smile reflects the empathetic happiness of any audience members in possession of a heart. He bows from the waist in farewell, as does Sara. The shot fades with Sara resembling a Pentecostal Christian during a praise song, utterly fulfilled.
The scene in question might or might not be a dream. Although preceded by a hallucinatory image of Sara in India (presumably unreal as India is miles away from New York City), it is entirely plausible that Sara might arise to find a man ready to engage in a ritual worship of beauty/life. In either case, the line between fantasy and reality is far too tenuous for strict definitions, and in Sara’s mind, such distinctions do not matter. Traversing the streets of London in her dirty shawl after the death of her father, childhood and India seem empty lies to Sara. But awakening from the grime, the girl miraculously re-discovers her imagination. It’s a childish concept, illustrated in the simplest expression of happiness imaginable. By accepting this perspective in all its limitations and possibilities, the filmmakers convey a naïve truth far too silly for an adult to grasp.