Frances Hodgson Burnett’s acclaimed novel The Secret Garden has been adapted into films, stage musicals and television movies so many times since its publication in 1911 that it’s difficult to keep track. But in the versions I’ve seen, the best tellings have all benefitted from sticking close to the source material and its themes about how children and adults deal with loss. This new version from director (and British TV veteran) Marc Munden changes a few of the details but maintains a certain sense of wonder and period imagination. Still, he doesn’t bring much to the table as far as inventive storytelling or compelling dramatics go.
Now set in 1947, the new film still centers on a spoiled English girl named Mary Lennox (Dixie Egerickx, who recently showed up a in key supporting role in Summerland), living in India with her parents, both of whom die (but not from cholera, like in the book) during India’s fight for independence. Mary is sent back to England to live with a rich uncle, Archibald Craven (Colin Firth), whosse wife (and Mary’s mother’s twin sister) recently died, leaving behind a distraught husband and desperately ill son Colin (Edan Hayhurst). In some adaptations, the uncle character is played as frail and kind, but Firth goes more for emotionally broken and stand-offish with both his niece and son, who is confined to bed after being diagnosed with an unknown ailment.
Also residing at the estate are the housekeeper Mrs. Medlock (Julie Walters), maid Martha (Isis David) and her younger brother Dickon (Amir Wilson), who help attend to the property and Mary. Mary discovers an overgrown, gated garden on the property, which it turns out her aunt and mother enjoyed before they were separated, but as the girl begins to explore its secrets and mysteries, it comes to life and even seems to have low-grade magical abilities to heal. As adapted by Jack Thorne, The Secret Garden emphasizes some of the dark elements of life at the estate, with the possibilities of ghosts haunting the house and Craven’s committing his son to an invalid’s life simply because he doesn’t want him to do anything that might cause him harm.
Even with some of the changes, there’s never a moment where we don’t know exactly where the story is going. That alone shouldn’t be cause for the film to be so decidedly average and without any real inspiration. It’s certainly a beautifully realized film, with lush production design and impressive cinematography, but the writing never quite rises to the level of the technical achievements. Perhaps I bristle at the sight of so many overly sensitive privileged British kids in one film. If cousin Colin doesn’t annoy you with his constant complaining and wailing when something makes him anxious, you’re a more patient person than I.
Much like her turn in Summerland, Egerickx stands out for her tougher edge and only slightly modern spirit. She’s not attempting to be adorable or precious. She wants to explore her family history as passionately as she wants to explore the grounds of this property, and her enthusiasm is contagious. Director Munden does an admirable job not going overboard with the magical realism of the garden—maybe it has special qualities, maybe it doesn’t—instead opting to emphasize the special place the spot holds for those who used to occupy it or once did. The pent-up emotions on full display here make the whole production feel exceedingly British, which is fine. But with too few elements of the work to stand out in any way, this latest version of The Secret Garden shines visually some of the time, but not emotionally.
The film is now available on PVOD (available for rent on digital platforms at a premium price).
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