Reviewed By Jeffrey Sanzel
British-American novelist Frances Hodgson Burnett wrote three dozen novels for children. Of these, the best known were Little Lord Fauntleroy, A Little Princess, and The Secret Garden, all published between 1885 and 1911. While the first two have had various cinematic incarnations, it is The Secret Garden that has endured, in remakes on film and television over a half dozen times. It was also the source for the 1991 Tony-nominated Broadway musical.
Set at the turn of the 20th century, The Secret Garden has a dark narrative and, interestingly, a difficult and selfish protagonist. Unlike the title characters in Fauntleroy and Princess, Mary Lennox is a willful, headstrong child; she is indulged by her servants and used to getting her own way. After her parents die of the cholera in India, Mary is sent to live at Misselthwaite Manor, an isolated mansion on the Yorkshire moors. There she is to live with her Uncle Archibald Craven, whom she has never met. Archibald is a damaged and distant widower, brooding over the loss of his beloved wife.
Mary learns that her behavior will not be tolerated and is forced to become more self-sufficient and respectful. Hearing sobbing in the night, she discovers the invalid boy, Colin, who is kept hidden away. Told that he is too frail to be out in the world, Colin is another self-absorbed and difficult child. It is a story of deception and despair as well as hope, growth, and awakening; the titular garden is a metaphor for death and rebirth.
The current adaptation is directed by Marc Munden, from a screenplay by Jack Thorne. (Thorne is responsible for last season’s Broadway production of A Christmas Carol, an introspective, intriguing, and literate vision.) The creators have moved the action to 1947, the eve of the partition between India and Pakistan. This was a time of deep unrest as thousands fled conflict and disease.
The opening sequences accentuate Mary’s abandonment, with the house in disarray; she listens to the not-so-distant sounds of gunshots, forced to fend for herself. She eats rotting food and drinks tea dregs, telling herself and her doll tales of the Indian gods. Her ability to tell stories is one that follows through the rest of the narrative.
Next, she is put on a sort of Indian Kindertransport and sent to England. She arrives at Misselthwaite, which looms like a haunted Downton Abbey. The house is in disrepair, having been used as a hospital during the war. She is warned by the housekeeper, Mrs. Medlock, not to go “poking about.” The film then begins to follow the novel: Mary wandering around the vast, empty rooms, eventually discovering the temperamental Colin, a boy whose manners are worse than hers. What ensues is Mary’s healing herself through her healing of Colin. She goes from spoiled and demanding (she won’t even dress herself) to generous and self-reliant. It is a predictable journey but a good lesson for younger viewers.
The Secret Garden is not a plot driven piece but is more rooted in character and atmosphere. Different versions focus on the personal struggles; others highlight the more fantastical elements. In the current offering, it is a mix, with emphasis placed equally on the relationship of Mary’s and Colin’s mothers, who were twins. They are seen in flashbacks as well as spirit guides in the present. The garden itself is an almost mystical jungle, an idyll with oversized plants and hundreds of CGI-ed butterflies. Lights dapple on moss-covered trees as the verdant bower explodes in vivid color.
In Thorne’s screenplay, Mary learns almost too quickly to say “please.” There isn’t much an arc as instantaneous awareness. Within a day of her arrival, she has befriended a stray dog, and there are many shots of them running on the grounds to the strains of Disney-like accompaniment. It is the dog that leads her to the secret garden.
The acceleration of action is a problem that could be leveled at the entire film. Development is rushed to get to the next grand image. There are many fantasy moments (wallpaper that comes to life, the sisters appearing and disappearing, etc.) but seeing the characters interacting would have made for more of an emotional investment.
Dixie Egerickx is an engrossing Mary Lennox. She’s a rough-and-tumble survivor and never has a false moment. There is always a sense that she is taking everything in; she is a wonderful mix of spontaneity and thoughtfulness. Amir Wilson makes an honest, vaguely feral Dickon, brother to the housemaid Martha (a solid but underused Isis Davis); a sort of local “wild boy,” he and Mary clear the garden together and form a deep bond.
Edan Hayhurst’s Colin is a bit shrill and one-note but that is the nature of the character; he does manage a nice shift in his ultimate awakening. The usually formidable Julie Walters doesn’t have much to do as the sour Mrs. Medlock; she clomps up and down stairs, opening and closing doors, and jangling her keys.
Colin Firth is a terrific actor and the tormented Archibald should have been an ideal match for his skills. Sadly, he has barely any screen time, appearing briefly on Mary’s arrival and then disappearing for the next hour. He has a few nice moments (in particular, in his late wife’s room) but it’s just not enough. Archibald is a fascinating character with dimensional possibilities that are sadly unexplored. His absence tamps down any real build in tension, and what should be his climactic reunion with his son Colin is less than cathartic. It doesn’t help that it is brought about by a clumsy, melodramatic twist.
The Secret Garden touches on many themes. At its heart, it is about how forgiveness — of both others and of ourselves — leads to understanding. In this case, incomplete families become whole by embracing truths that have been kept hidden. Painful memories come to light and this leads to acceptance and growth. And while the newest version of The Secret Garden is certainly not definitive, it is visually striking and has a bold, believable Mary its center.
Rated PG, The Secret Garden is now streaming on demand.
Photos courtesy of STXfilms