I’ve always viewed The Secret Garden as a sort of “Gothic romance for beginners,” with a dose of that childish whimsy that made Frances Hodgson Burnett‘s 1911 classic such a fixture on our childhood bookshelves or our televisions in the form of the various film and made-for-TV adaptations over the years. Hear me out: a willful protagonist who comes to live at a cavernous, dilapidated manor in the moors, its residents haunted by the ghosts of their past. But of course, instead of a crazed wife in the attic or an actual ghost (though she does find a sickly cousin hidden away), she discovers the healing properties of a secret garden. But the haunting setting for The Secret Garden has been largely glossed over in adaptations in favor of the pastoral paradise of the garden and the wholesome return to simpler times that it represents (though the recent 1993 adaptation is an exception, its darker Gothic tones not lost in the process). As such, The Secret Garden has earned a reputation as another stuffy period piece, except for kids.
Marc Munden‘s new take on The Secret Garden doesn’t shy away from the Gothic roots of the Burnett’s novel, bringing its new Mary Lennox (newcomer Dixie Egerickx) into a Misselthwaite Manor that is covered in peeling wallpaper and flickering electric lights, whose walls and floorboards creak while the wind whistles through it. The Yorkshire Moors, similarly, are always covered in fog, making any people who are walking through those desolate crags appear to suddenly emerge from the mist like a ghost. But on the flip side, neither does it shy away from the implicit “magic” of Burnett’s novel, leaning into the whimsy of the story with a hefty dose of magical realism.
Like most fans who watched the trailers for The Secret Garden, I was skeptical of the fantasy-heavy approach taken by Munden and screenwriter Jack Thorne. Thorne is no stranger to the genre, having written the stage play for Harry Potter and the Cursed Child and recently spearheaded BBC’s His Dark Materials adaptation. There was a fear that Munden and Thorne would turn The Secret Garden into a nu-Harry Potter, replete with magical moving foliage and fairytale elements. But Munden and Thorne avoid completely diving into the fantasy pool with their magical realism approach: magic exists in the world through the eye of the beholder. It’s actually in keeping with Burnett’s novel, which has abundant references to the “Magic,” that Mary believes makes the plants grow in the garden and helps her sickly cousin Colin heal. Whether that magic was real or not was up to the interpretation of the reader, and Munden only takes it a step further with their lush, stylish visuals that turn paintings of birds on a wallpaper into a real flock of birds that Mary chases in a flashback to her childhood India, or tree branches that mold to Mary’s hands as she clumsily climbs up it.
Aside from their magical realism approach, Munden and Thorne dramatically reimagine The Secret Garden. Moving it from its turn-of-the-century setting and placing it in 1947, The Secret Garden opens in Mary’s empty house on the eve of the Partition of India, as the young girl eats scraps from an abandoned feast and tells herself richly imaginative stories to distract herself from her isolation. Mary’s parents had rushed to the hospital after her mother had contracted cholera, and the servants had deserted the house in the chaos of Partition. Mary is discovered alone in the house after both her parents had succumbed to the disease, and shipped off to England to live with her reclusive uncle, the Lord Archibald Craven (Colin Firth, sporting a hunch back and a permanent scowl). The petulant Mary, used to being spoiled and catered to by her servants in India, is immediately at odds with the no-nonsense housekeeper Mrs. Medlock (Julie Walters, with all the harshness but none of the warmth of Maggie Smith’s iteration) and the spirited maid Martha (Isis Davis).
The house is cursed, Mary learns from its servants, haunted by the ghosts of the soldiers who were treated during the war when Misselthwaite was used as a temporary hospital. Mary believes them, hearing wails at night that she is certain is more than just the winds blowing in from the moors. But growing frustrated with the secrecy of the residents of the house, Mary gets up in the middle of the night to investigate, and discovers her sickly cousin, Colin Craven (Edan Hayhurst), a bedridden boy as willful and spoiled as she is. They strike up a wary friendship, and as Mary begins to explore outside the house and is led to a secret garden by a mangy dog wandering the moors, she becomes convinced that taking Colin to the garden will heal him.
There is a sense that Munden and Thorne changed much of The Secret Garden to make it more palatable to young modern audiences. Egerickx’s Mary is spoiled and stubborn like her book counterpart, but she is also incredibly imaginative and outgoing, while her stubborn-ness is transformed into a more respectable brand of headstrong. One of the remarkable parts about Burnett’s original novel was that her protagonist was so unlikable and a bit of a brat. But Egerickx does manage to impress as this slightly toned down Mary, giving a precocious performance that is both a little otherworldly and grounded. The child actors in general hold their own, with Amir Wilson’s Dickon appearing halfway through the film like a sprite-like figure who emerges from the moors and helps Mary unearth the secret garden, and Hayhurst dutifully playing the perpetually peeved Colin, uncertain how to interact with others. It’s the more high-profile performers who are sadly a little one note, with Firth doing little more than playing the sad dad, while Walters harrumphs her way through the movie.
The strengths lie, then, in the film’s lush visuals, which Munden eagerly focuses on. Munden loves to shoot Egerickx in dreamy, almost Malickian close-ups when he’s not lavishing attention on the haunting moors (making great use of those fog machines) or the admittedly gorgeous wilderness of the secret garden. The garden is like something out of a fairy tale, with giant trees and fronds, stone ruins, and a pond. The ethereal nature of the garden isn’t at odds with the rest of the film, which is already saturated in colors and light. Even the spooky halls of Misselthwaite, where Mary catches glimpses of the ghosts of laughing women, are given a sort of warmth.
Though Munden attempts to overload our senses with rich visuals, The Secret Garden does end up feeling kind of slight, like the film rushed through the SparkNotes version of the story. The pace is so brisk that the film doesn’t allow its moments of emotional resonance to breathe, skipping quickly to the next big event without hesitation. Though the film jumps smoothly between the present to Mary’s life in India, where she ponders her unhappy family life, we don’t get much a sense of Mary’s internality. The Secret Garden instead rushes to a climactic conclusion, one whose stakes are raised in the irksome trend of recent family movies. (Sometimes a low-stakes finale is totally fine!) But despite its faults and its major revisionism, The Secret Garden didn’t sacrifice the spirit of the story in any way and manages to breathe new life in to Burnett’s classic tale.
/Film Rating: 7.5 out of 10
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