Never, Rarely, Sometimes, Always
With stunning performances from two completely genuine young leads, this is a movie people will talk about all year.
We are pleased to offer an excerpt from the latest edition of the online magazine Bright Wall/Dark Room. The theme for their April issue is "Magical Realism," and in addition to Corbin Dewitt's essay, it also includes new pieces on "The Double Life of Veronique," "3 Women," "Her," "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind," "Wings of Desire," "Streets of Fire," "Stranger than Fiction," "Jane," "A Life Less Ordinary," "Portrait of Jennie" and more.
It begins in green, deep green, accompanied by a low persistent hum that seems to rumble from within, as though heard from inside the resonant chamber of a huge stringed instrument. A golden-yellow script, seriffed with arabesques and meant to appear exotic though the words it spells are Warner Brothers presents, fades in, fades out. Then the voice—a girl's, American, soft but inflected with the canny singsong of storytelling: "A very long time ago, there lived a beautiful princess...in a mystical land...known as...India." Sitar springs up, shimmers. The title, golden-arabesqued too, blooms gold against the green.
Cut to two years earlier: A different girl, in a different film, leads a boy into a walled garden to ask him if it is dead. The boy and the girl snap their way through a tangle of branches, dull brown-grey. He takes a knife from his pocket, slits the bark, peels it back to show her what’s beneath. “This part’s wick,” he says, the music of his Yorkshire accent floating through the register just above adolescent voice-crack tenor. “See the green?”
It’s there—barely there, but there, a pale sliver amid the nothing-colored sticks and the dry grass and the dark russet knit of the girl’s hat. “Wick. What’s wick?” she asks.
“Alive,” he answers, with a shrug and a little smile. “Alive, as you or me.”
The girls are Sara Crewe and Mary Lennox: Only children, wealthy, white, 11-ish, born and raised in India under British colonial rule, and, long before appearing in the scenes detailed above, the heroines of novels by British-American author Frances Hodgson Burnett. The films are A Little Princess and The Secret Garden. Released in 1995 and 1993, respectively, neither holds the distinction of first adaptation. It would be difficult to draw any simple connection between the original author of the stories and the two directors tasked with reimagining them a century after publication (although, if inclined to use magic, which can collapse any difficult task into a simple one, all three—like me—were born with sun in Sagittarius).
One, Alfonso Cuarón, a young man from Mexico City, had only a single feature-length directorial credit to his name—1991’s Sólo con tu pareja, decidedly not a children’s movie—when he found himself facing the opportunity to make A Little Princess. Initially indifferent, he sat down to read the script and, as he told The LA Times later, it was "like it was vibrating. Like it was glowing. I was at Page 17 and I called my agent, and said, 'I've got to do this movie.'”
The other, Agnieszka Holland, read and reread The Secret Garden as a girl growing up in Warsaw during the final years of Stalin’s rule. Already well established as an auteur focused on overtly political stories, like 1990’s Oscar-nominated Europa Europa, Holland wanted a chance to reimagine the book that spellbound her as a child. “'I was very tired of the big subjects—the dead, the war, the Jews, the communists,” she told the UK Independent in 1993. “I decided I wanted to spend one year in The Secret Garden.”
Thus the stories begin. Sara—cherished, imaginative, and preternaturally serene—must leave India for an all-girls boarding school in New York, as her beloved father Captain Crewe has been called away to serve in the Great War. Mary—dour, stiff, unloved, and unloving—survives the earthquake that kills both her negligent parents, and sails to England to live with her next-of-kin at a gloomy manor called Misselthwaite.
Sara of Burnett’s book is black-haired, green-eyed, unpretty in the parlance of children’s books, i.e. secretly more pretty than girls whose prettiness smacks of something standard-issue. In Cuarón's film, she’s played by Liesel Matthews, real-life heiress to the multi-million dollar Hyatt Hotels fortune, who more closely matches Burnett’s original description of Sara’s doll Emily: "naturally curling golden-brown hair, which hung like a mantle about her, and her eyes...a deep, clear, gray-blue, with soft, thick eyelashes which were real eyelashes and not mere painted lines.” As Mary, Kate Maberly manages the slow softening from rude, miserable orphan émigré to cautiously joyful friend with such grace and aplomb that she whirls all the way around the circular gauge of visible child-actor technique to arrive back at the beginning, where you dare to wonder whether she's acting at all.
Both girls were industry unknowns prior to casting, and, perhaps more critically, both faded from the public eye as swiftly as they entered it, choosing to decline passage into the world of career acting and thus into a different kind of magic tale, that of the child star. Their present-day anonymity relieves their performances from the burden of later celebrity—no need to watch for the sparkle of fame earned, then seized or squandered. You can just pay attention to what they're doing, and to the worlds they move through, alongside them.
The worlds are green, and they mirror their girls. Like Sara, A Little Princess carries its carefully considered, more-than-real palette and its sympathetic magic as fixed certainties, so self-assured that neither seems a conceit. Cuarón’s team constructed an old-fashioned soundstage universe, stretched its proportions to mimic the vaulted hugeness of the world as seen in childhood, and colored it all in green. The effect looks less Emerald City and more sepia-toned photograph, copper softness patinated into subtle shades of moss and chartreuse. In the film’s production notes, cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki explained that "green is the only color in the spectrum that can be lit in either warm or cold tones; that kind of flexibility gives us a range of emotion to work with on every set." As such, the look of the film is artificial, but not in the least cartoonish—the olivine sateen and curlicue embroidery of the girls’ school uniforms glow against a backdrop of browns and tans and creams, grounded by the solidity of “real black stockings and real black boots,” as costume designer Judianna Makovsky put it.
Like Mary, The Secret Garden is a film that greens by degrees—as the murk of English winter thaws to spring, she thaws too, and grows brighter alongside a dappled infinity of leaves and flowers and fields. The visuals are looser, less constructed, more naturalistic; I am reminded of Hayao Miyazaki, another master maker of magical childhoods, who, in an interview with Roger Ebert, explains the crucial function of silence in film. “If you just have non-stop action with no breathing space at all, it's just busyness,” Miyazaki says. “But if you take a moment, then the tension building in the film can grow into a wider dimension.” In this fashion, scenes of strict realism become a kind of magic. Whole minutes pass devoted to whispering curtains of ivy, candlelight and shadow yawning across walls, the snap and flutter of birds’ wings. “The house seemed dead, like a spell had been cast upon it,” Mary narrates in voice-over as she wanders the halls of Misselthwaite, looking like a ghost herself in a white nightgown and rubber boots, but the house appears to the viewer as a labyrinth of lively faces, watchful tapestries and polished-wood gargoyles, and its halls echo with low moans issued from an unseen source. Every frame seems to breathe, recalling the era of childhood when any place or object or creature stood ready to reveal itself as a secret living being—that is to say, wick, alive as you or me.
One gets the sense that every moment in these films, green or otherwise, is wick. Many films for children flatten the world, rather than deepen it, such that adults find them unwatchable; these two stories honor the truth that adults and children live in the same world and simply see it differently. Take out a knife, peel back the bark, and you’ll find all sorts of forces flowing underneath.
Death is here; a bellowing elephant, a popped black balloon, a creaking wooden swing, a soldier’s limp hand smeared with mud. Sex is present too, though held at a distance: the aura of mystery that cloaks Mary’s dead mother and her secret twin; the drip of silliness that ripples the smooth flow of storybook romance pursued by Miss Amelia, the boarding school’s blowsy and soft-hearted second-in-command, who lusts after the milkman—when he comes to the kitchen door she pants, trembles, extends the rack of empty bottles like a hand to be kissed as the girls in her charge look on and laugh. The boys of Misselthwaite aren’t milkmen yet, but they’re on the way: Colin Craven, Mary’s haughty, ailing cousin and the source of the manor’s ghostly wails, has skin like a sweating glass of skim milk held up to sunlight, bluish-translucent and unwholesome; Dickon, a young Andrew Knott plush with dimples, is the cream off the top of the pail, purest product of hot-breathed animals and the clean grass of the Yorkshire countryside, rich in the sense of nourishment rather than capital. (A friend and I once theorized that every man in the world can be typed as either a Colin or a Dickon, and if you imprinted on either as a child you’re fated to find something of their spirit in anyone who turns your head afterwards. Guess which one I liked.) Holland’s adaptation treats their relationships with Mary with the requisite subtlety and intensity: in late-childhood, almost-adolescent friendship, sometimes grabbing someone’s hand is nothing, but sometimes a force of mutual curiosity shivers in the air like a wall of ivy waiting to reveal hitherto unseen doors.
When conflict enters, it is not as a supernaturally powerful nemesis to be battled but as garden-variety human cruelty and indifference, much harder to weed out. The closest thing these movies have to villains are Miss Minchin, school headmistress, and Mrs. Medlock, Misselthwaite’s head housekeeper—played with waspish grace and iron-grey pompadours by grande dames Eleanor Bron and Maggie Smith, respectively. As front-line enforcers of socioeconomic boundaries, Minchin and Medlock snip at their charges as though they were privet hedges, pruning the curiosity and openheartedness of the children in their care towards more callous and correct adult behaviors.
Moments after Sara arrives at school, she is chastised for trying to befriend Becky, the school’s scullery maid. Cuarón cast Vanessa Lee Chester, a black actress, in this role, bringing new dimensions of particularly American tension into the moment when Sara ventures upstairs to say hello and startles Becky, who drops the ice she’d been using to soothe her throbbing feet and says, “Begging your pardon but we’ll both be in trouble if you stay.” Through earlier scenes of Sara’s life in India, we are meant to understand that she’s accustomed—encouraged, even—to socialize across divisions of class and race, giving her a veneer of righteous empathy that obscures details like, for example, what she and her father are doing in India to begin with. Miss Minchin icily tolerates Sara’s whimsical disregard for such social conventions insofar as her father’s checks keep clearing; when a black-suited solicitor appears to explain that Captain Crewe has been killed in action, she slams down the piano lid mid-ragtime razzle-dazzle, sends Sara’s schoolmates scurrying, and explains to the stunned girl that she is now a penniless orphan who must work for her keep alongside Becky. Exiled to the servant’s quarters up in the attic, Sara finds a piece of broken chalk and draws herself a clumsy circle of protection, then curls up on the floorboards and sobs for her father. No one answers. The camera lingers on the room’s cavernous darkness, the pouring rain outside, as if demonstrating the universe’s indifference. It’s a moment that harkens back to Minchin’s earlier jibe about Sara’s blithe insistence on making up happy endings for every story: “I suppose that’s rather easy for a child who has everything.”
Mary, on the other hand, demonstrates a calcified certainty in her place in the world, standing stiff and stony-faced in the opening sequence as two unnamed Indian women dress her in lilac linen. She tries this same pose on Mrs. Medlock, only to become hotly embarrassed at the latter’s expression of incredulity that she cannot dress herself. "My Ayah dressed me," she says, as though such an arrangement were a law of nature. Unimpressed, Medlock sets her back with a curt reminder that she won’t be dressed by servants now that she’s come to England—“we’ve far too much work already,” she says.
That work, of course, comes from maintenance of the vast estate in addition to caring for the bedridden Colin, whose own imperious commands and temper tantrums keep the staff at their wits’ end. Behind all Medlock’s fussiness and anxiety, and all Colin’s attention-seeking morbidity, lies the specter of Colin’s father, Lord Archibald Craven: a remote Byronic shadow whose grief-stricken indifference casts a pall of misery over the house. When Mary finally sees him to ask, circuitously, permission to revive his dead wife’s garden, he waves her away with a spindly aristocratic hand. “Take your bit of earth,” he says to her, “but don’t be foolish enough to expect anything to come of it.”
To my adult eye, these films have become stories about class, race, colonialism, patriarchy. That Sara and Mary are wealthy and white is integral to understanding their stories; the upending of their previously stable social hierarchies is what drives their narratives forward. The lives of the laborers necessary to create Sara’s world seem indistinguishable from her own until she’s forced to inhabit their circumstances herself; Mary, on the other hand, learns to see her servants as people in the country where they’re white. Meanwhile, their lives hinge on the whim and resources of the men in their worlds. Cuarón and Holland both lay out moment after moment depicting the decidedly unmagical forces underpinning the worlds onscreen and off—so much for Holland’s exhaustion with “the big subjects.”
The other major force in these worlds is magic. Unlike the universe of, say, Harry Potter—where magic is linked to questions of heritage and education, and functions as an element or resource over which mastery is encouraged—Frances Hodgson Burnett's worlds posit a magic already present everywhere, in all substances. As Sara knows and Mary learns, this magic becomes accessible to anyone capable of recognizing that if this immanence is real, they’re already part of it, and not the other way around.
When magic in these films crosses from implicit to explicit depiction, it’s often accomplished using India as a vehicle. The most striking visuals of A Little Princess appear along with Ram Dass, manservant to the school’s wealthy next-door neighbor. He illuminates the austere green universe of the film with the colors of Sara's remembered India: bright cream, warm orange, glowing gold. Nowhere is this imagery more iconic than in the scene of the saffron yellow breakfast. Sara and Becky, banished to bed after being promised a day of starvation as punishment, fall asleep make-believing a feast and wake to find their barren attic room transfigured into a sunshine-colored dream: billowing curtains of silk, quilted robes, gilded slippers, vases of sunflowers, table laden with gleaming china and silver trays of sausages steaming in the morning light. Ram Dass gives them a wordless nod of acknowledgement from the window next door. This moment is more beautiful to recollect than any of his stilted, vaguely mystical dialogue, or indeed than the moment Sara wiggles her fingers and chants at a cruel classmate in order to cast, in her words, “a little curse I learned from a witch back in India.” Mary’s India is yellow-orange too, dim and dull like the flickering firelight in the scene where she and her companions cast a spell around a bonfire to call Colin’s father back from a trip abroad. They, too, wiggle and chant, playacting at exotic witchery.
Such inclusions of India, in myth and fragment and stereotype, can accurately be summed up with the term cultural appropriation, but to do so risks oversimplifying. To the contemporary eye, it’s clear the thorny questions of identity—of who tells which stories, and how, and why—had not yet grown to flourish in public discourse as they do today. That the most cringe-inducing moments happen where the films depart from their original source material only tangles matters further—for example, Cuarón’s choice to include a portion of the Ramayana as a frame story recounted by Sara becomes a choice to paint Liam Cunningham, the Irish actor who plays her father, a lurid indigo so he can double as Prince Rama. If the film were to be released now, it’s easy to imagine the discursive spiral weighing the positives of representation and attempted inclusivity against the clumsy overreach and exotification present in the final product. Then, of course, there are the source texts themselves, written by a white woman who’d never even been to India. The stickier truth is that both Mary and Sara are canonically from there—as white colonizers, yes, beneficiaries of systemic exploitation and cruelty, but also raised by women whose stories shaped them, seeped into them, regardless. As Mary and Colin put together a puzzle depicting a map of the world during a rainy day, she tells him that when it rained in India, her Ayah used to tell her stories—like the one of a boy who lived with cows but kept a whole universe down his throat. Incredulous, Colin presses her to explain how such a thing could be possible. “It doesn’t make sense,” he says.
“It doesn’t have to make sense. It’s the idea of it,” she counters.
“It’s so stupid,” he says, tone tightening into his customary derision.
“No it’s not,” she says, her tone tightening, too. “It’s magic.”
“You can’t really be that stupid,” he says.
“I am not stupid,” she says, shoving the puzzle back at him, scattering the pieces of their unfinished picture of the world. “You just don’t understand. You don’t want to.”
What is green is new, is inexperienced. I admit that my heart belonged to these movies before I was old enough to grasp the flat facts of them, let alone the world around them: A Little Princess is the first movie I ever saw in a theater, so in a way it is the movie, bound forever to the memory of what going to the movies means, a memory less of the mind and more of the muscle, rooted in that breathless moment when the lights go dark and the throat tightens at the first strains of music. I remember these films with my whole body.
When my mother tells the story of bringing me and my best friend to see the film together, the standout anecdote comes at the movie’s denouement: a harrowing, high-gothic escape across dizzying heights between two top-floor garret windows, where, lashed by sheets of rain, Sara lowers a slippery plank out of the attic to flee Miss Minchin and a cadre of black-suited police. As Sara's boots slipped and clacked on the shaky board, my friend and I leapt from our seats to cheer her on, crying YOU CAN DO IT! YOU CAN DO IT! and thrusting our hands towards the screen to channel our pure belief. Our words echo back to me in the terse murmurs of Mary and Dickon urging Colin to take his first few unsupported steps across the garden. You can do it, they say, you can do it, low and firm and certain, like a spell. Sara's board tumbles into thin air, but her hand snaps up to grip the wet concrete sill and she hauls herself bodily out of free-fall; Colin, half-crouched and cautious, stumbles across the picnic blanket and into Dickon's wide waiting arms and a lamb bleats and the three children shout with joy; at 3 years old, I sobbed in the dark cinema aisles with fear and wonder and relief. Now, having watched and rewatched, I am amazed to find that something in me still lights up every time: green, of course, meaning go go go.
It is not about what happens, in the end. Many fairytales end in death and ruin but in Hollywood a fairytale ending means happily ever after. At one point, jaded, I convinced myself that the impossible endings to these films—Captain Crewe back from the dead; Colin and his father healed, physically and spiritually—invalidated their beginnings, their beauties. In my reality, any promise of salvation feels unrealistic if it wears the shape of a father; beyond that, there’s the bitter certainty that thinking beyond the confines of the story necessitates remembering the joyous resolutions won’t last. No magic can erase the conflicts and forces that will ultimately tear their protagonists out of the world of childhood magic and into an uglier world of adult realism.
It’s this last truth that drives the stories towards their conclusions—a fear that the adults in the story will behave in accordance with this knowledge and fail to see the magic, fail to see how a universe could fit in a human throat, fail, in other words, at empathy. What would a realist say? Take your bit of earth, but don’t expect anything to come of it.
Or, perhaps, as a derisive Miss Minchin tells Sara: “It's time you learn, Sara Crewe, that real life has nothing to do with your little fantasy games. It's a cruel, nasty world out there and it's our duty to make the best of it—not to indulge in ridiculous dreams, but to be productive and useful!”
Sara acknowledges she understands this. But as Miss Minchin turns to go, satisfied at having instilled the lesson at last, Sara says, quietly: “But I don't believe in it.”
“Don't tell me you still fancy yourself a princess!” Minchin says, face twisting into a mask of incredulous fury. “Good god, child, look around you!”
“I am a princess,” Sara says, stepping forward. “All girls are! Even if they live in tiny old attics, even if they dress in rags, even if they aren't pretty, or smart, or young, they're still princesses—all of us!”
I have never once seen any woman get to the end of this scene dry-eyed—including, actually, Miss Minchin, who slams the attic door and, by the light of an iron candelabra, wipes angrily at her wet cheeks. Everything about the speech is too corny, too dramatic, too ridiculous and yet—and yet. To hear in tones of clear conviction that your circumstances do nothing to diminish your worth does not feel ridiculous at all.
Roger Ebert, reviewing The Secret Garden, said "watching it is like entering for a time into a closed world where one's destiny may be discovered." Any fairytale is like this: Suspend your disbelief as you listen to what you know cannot be real, then emerge transformed. You can hear "all girls are princesses" and understand its meaning as a series of beautiful surfaces, thinking yes, each of us deserves the status, the hair-bows, the yards and yards of yellow silk, the attention, the accolades, the father-protector, the huge bedroom with carved sandalwood doors flung wide to the lush and sprawling estate in India, built with money and security that has materialized from means and processes and dull details with which we need not concern ourselves. This would be, as Miss Minchin says, “to indulge in ridiculous dreams.”
Or you can hear "all girls are princesses" and then hear what comes after it, an idea that is simpler but in no way easier: that every human person is in possession of an undeniable essential dignity—“even if they dress in rags,” Sara says, “even if they’re not pretty, or smart, or young”—and it is the duty of any person alive in the world to recognize and honor that dignity in every other. When peeling back the bark this way, the moral is less about claiming what one is owed, and more about learning to see not only how a universe could fit down a human throat but how, in fact, it’s already there. There’s a universe inside every human throat. You just have to be willing to understand.
The most beautiful scene in either of these two films, in my opinion, is one that occurs halfway through The Secret Garden, as spring comes to Misselthwaite. It’s a time-lapse sequence: roots dig into earth and flowers unfurl into air with visceral, almost flesh-like liveliness. Crocuses, harebells, daffodils, roses—petals split wide, multiply. A monarch butterfly pulls itself from its sticky chrysalis. Light and shadow race over the mauve-brown moors until they flush into sudden, gorgeous green.
It was this scene I thought of years later when I first encountered Dylan Thomas’ poem:
The force that through the green fuse drives the flower Drives my green age; that blasts the roots of trees Is my destroyer. And I am dumb to tell the crooked rose My youth is bent by the same wintry fever.
Time, here, seems a destructive force, ready to crush youth into decay, health into sickness, a living body into a corpse at which the worms go. It’s easy, when talking about childhood, to slip into a similar stance—we grow older, familiar spaces shift, simple stories open into complex ones. The passage of those first green moments can feel like a loss.
But there's a beauty in returning to old places and finding them changed. The rooms of buildings known years ago seem to have shrunk, but the trees outside have gotten taller. It's the beauty of time made visible, tangible—the beauty of finding not only a change in the world around you, but within yourself, too. Each time I watch these movies—though I know them by heart—I live the impossibility of my earliest memories returned in flawless clarity. Some moments have come to feel like too-small rooms, cramped and uncomfortable, but some have burgeoned and bloomed into arrays of beauty I never could’ve imagined when I was a seedling myself.
These stories insist that the aliveness of the world is irreducible and everywhere, that it moves through everything, and that despite this, it is often invisible to us. Sara, as a storyteller, and Mary, as a gardener, discover ways to bring that aliveness to light. I no longer find redemption in the hermetic promise of happy endings; instead, I see it in the muddled, moving centers, in the gestures and attempts the girls make to channel the magic into something that can be shared, even as their attempts are met with indifference. The process itself is enough.
A storyteller does not invent, but reinvents, taking familiar elements—dirt, water, light—and transforming them into something new. No magic is bound to occur with raw material; sometimes a mound of mud in the sun is just that. But with the right conditions, and a scratched seed, sometimes something grows. Movie-making, as a form of storytelling, could just as easily be called photosynthesis: images of light, strung together in sequence, blossom into something beyond their beginnings.
A Little Princess is a little princess because, as Sara says, all girls are princesses. The Secret Garden is the secret garden because, as Mary says, if you look the right way, you can see that the whole world is a garden. Their stories, their roses, live beyond and outside them. Thomas’ poem ends at the worm, but worth remembering is what happens after: The worm eats the corpse in the winding sheet (and the poet in turn), excretes rich dirt. The blood and wax of the body, sucked in by silvery roots, sprout back up, twice digested, as a plurality of new green fuses. We die. The story continues without us. Realistically, the perpetual process of change is the only magic there is.
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