Madeline is further evidence of girl power. Not the preening hyperbole of the Spice Girls, but the real power inside brave, intelligent, creative girls like Madeline, the central character of six books written by Ludwig Bemelmans. Since the first book appeared in 1939, generations of women have grown up with this perennially popular character.
The movie Madeline is set in the mid-1950s (perhaps the last time girls could be the kind of girls the author envisioned), and combines the plots of four Bemelmans books: Madeline, Madeline and the Bad Hat, Madeline's Rescue, and Madeline and the Gypsies.
The Paris boarding school where Madeline lives is run by Miss Clavel (Frances McDormand), a nun who prizes order but encourages independent thought. Of the 12 girls there, cherished pupils all, Miss Clavel has an obvious soft spot for the mischievous orphan Madeline (Hatty Jones).
Madeline treats every day as if it were an adventure, and therefore finds adventures every day. A natural leader, she takes every opportunity to step forward and let her opinion be known, often with comically disastrous results.
Directed by Daisy von Scherler Mayer (who made the buoyant indie film Party Girl), Madeline finds plenty for these girls to do. When the Spanish ambassador moves in next door (the school is in a quiet, dignified neighborhood favored by the diplomatic set), he brings his son Pepito (Kristian De La Osa), a Vespa-riding little terror who holds an endless fascination for Miss Clavel's students.
Meanwhile, the loss of the school's wealthy patron, Lady Covington (Stéphane Audran), leaves the fate of Madeline and company in the unfriendly hands of chilly Lord Covington (Nigel Hawthorne), not so affectionately referred to as Lord Cucuface. The place they all called home (even though the other girls have families, their existence revolves around the surrogate sisterhood of the school) is suddenly up for sale.
Screenwriters Malia Scotch Marmo, Mark Levin and Jennifer Flackett have peppered Madeline with many small crises as well, each with the potential to upset the equilibrium of these girls' lives, but which only serve to draw them closer together. Madeline loses her appendix, falls into the Seine and is dramatically rescued, leads a vegetarian protest, tries to hide a dog from the allergic Miss Clavel, and is even kidnapped by circus clowns, but emerges wiser and even more confident that she "can do anything."
The young actresses are mostly British and French and are between 9 and 11 years old. They function as a cohesive group, although only a few have strong personalities. And the use of actual Paris locales adds greatly to the film's charms.
It's not as magical as other recent films made for girls such as The Secret Garden. Still, the lovely, lively Madeline is still spunky and endearing, not unlike its namesake.
Serena Donadoni writes about film for the Metro Times. E-mail her at [email protected].
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