A film review by Craig J. Koban November 21, 2020


2020, PG, 99 mins.

Dixie Egerickx as Mary Lennox  /  Colin Firth as Lord Archibald Craven  /  Julie Walters as Mrs. Medlock  /  Amir Wilson as Dickon  /  Maeve Dermody as Alice  /  Edan Hayhurst as Colin Craven  /  Jemma Powell as Grace Craven  /  Sonia Goswami as Aayah

Directed by Marc Munden  /  Written by Jack Thorne, based on the novel by Frances Hodgson Burnett

I'm not altogether sure that I coveted the last adaptation of THE SECRET GARDEN (produced by Francis Ford Coppola's American Zoetrope) so much so that I couldn't bare the thought of another cinematic iteration of this classic 1911 Francis Hodgson Burnett novel nearly three decades later 

One of the more iconic pieces of children's literature of its era, this fantasy drama has seen its fair share of versions on the silver screen, like the 1949 MGM pass, an attempt in 1987, and all the way through to the aforementioned - and perhaps most well known - 1993 installment...and now this one.  Directed with a painterly eye for sumptuous detail Marc Munden and featuring some compelling new tweaks to the existing source material, this SECRET GARDEN may not win over die hards of Burnett's prose as the best of the bunch, but it's a solid attempt that's made with consummate filmmaking craftsmanship and some welcoming dramatic intimacy. 

Following the book's famous and familiar themes of grief, loss, and the rite of passage for traumatized children, this SECRET GARDEN redo begins in 1947 and introduces us to its young protagonist in Mary (a well cast Dixie Egerickx), who has just become orphaned while in India, with her parents succumbing to widespread disease (which strikes unhealthily close to home for most of us now).  She hooks up with the family housekeeper in Medlock (Julie Walters) and is quickly whisked away to remote England to live with her newly widowed uncle in Archibald (a reliably potent Colin Firth), who is dealing with the loss of his wife as best as he can.  He also doesn't much like to be in the company of anyone, which means that poor Mary is mostly on her own to fend for herself and explore.  She acquaints herself with the help, including housemaid Martha (Isis Davis), who also tends after her younger brother in Dickon (Amir Wilson), whom she strikes up a quick friendship with.   

The pair also meet up with Archibald's crippled son in Colin (Edan Hayhurst), who has exiled himself to his bedroom and begins to grow irritated by Mary's constant checking in on him.  Slowly, but surely, Mary and Dickon manage to get Colin to venture out beyond his dark and desolate room and explore the area beyond the massive house, and on their spirited journey they discover a secret garden that was once lovingly preserved and maintained by Archibald's late wife.  The garden itself represents a large, magical sanctuary for the kids away from the foreboding and largely empty Archibald estate.  One of THE SECRET GARDEN's finest traits is the beautiful rendition of the titular area, which relies, yes, on CGI effects composited with real locations (from what I've read, the makers here have digitally combined the most opulent gardens in the UK into one eye popping whole).  One of the wonders of this film is how Munden juxtaposes the vibrant hues and inviting vistas of the garden with the dreary Gothic interiors of the estate, which helps, obviously enough, fuel the children's thirst for discovery and adventure. 



I wasn't able to watch THE SECRET GARDEN in a cinema due to the current pandemic, but I did experience it on my 4K Dolby Vision enabled home theater, which really made the splendors of the fantastical outdoor set pieces pop with such vividness (granted, experiencing this on the big screen is kind of a must for proper visual immersion, but if you have a proper setup on the home front, then THE SECRET GARDEN's aesthetic virtues will still be on wondrous display).  Cinematographer Lol Crawley deserves supreme props for making this film look as impressively striking as it is, especially during some of the more magical transitions and segues from present to past and vice versa, which explores Mary coming to grips with the memories of her dead parents during more content times.  This all ties into what many may consider some polarizing creative choices within the film in terms of faithfulness to the book and liberties taken with it. The timeframe of this version has been brought forward to the late 40s, which ties into the actual cholera epidemic that ravaged India at the time (clearly, this film was made well before our own current COVID pandemic, so parallels are purely coincidental).  This takes us to the garden, and in this version it's literally magic, not metaphorically so, with foliage, trees, and other plant life spontaneously coming alive with growth.  It also has the power to heal people (and one cute doggie).  Some might take exception to such changes, seeing as the original book emphasized how the kids bonded via the natural healing of the garden and not its spiritual powers, but I don't think it truly distracts from the emotional poignancy of the film. 

And besides, what's the point of a remake if one just copies and pastes what has come before wholesale?  Munden's THE SECRET GARDEN - as all good remakes do - remains true to the tone and themes of the novel while trying to carve out its own identity and path.  The book delved into how past trauma hurts people in varying degrees and how young people in particular can find a new lease on life with the pleasure of newfound company, spearheaded by exploring the garden itself.  Burnett's novel has become so cherished for so many decades largely because of its simple, but universal messages of how the best medicine for grief stricken children is to develop new friendships to heal wounds and form meaningful ties with people and family.  Munden understands and, most importantly, respects these core ideas in his attempts to give today's youth a new portal into ageless literature.  That, and he generates thanklessly good performances from his child actors as well (improper casting would have really sunk this picture).  The trio of them give such authentic and grounded performances that works in symmetry with the extraordinary events that play out for them while in the garden.  Having Firth in the film as well lends considerable gravitas and class, and he manages - with just a few small, but crucial scenes - to relay a man broken down by heartbreaking disease and death.  He says so little in the film, but his textured performance communicates volumes of anguish.   

Not all of THE SECRET GARDEN works and is on solid ground, though.  Mary as a character takes some time to latch on and relate to (initially, she comes off as almost frustratingly harsh to people around her, but rather opportunely has her rough edges smoothed over to make a sympathetic survivor).  The film also tries to up the action quotient in the story with its climax that seems counterproductive to the  makers' end game, which kind of left a bit of a sour taste in my mouth.  But still, I was greatly taken in with this SECRET GARDEN, which tenderly retains Mary's story arc of a girl exposed to mentally jarring suffering and finds a way with the help of friends to learn ways of coping and moving on.  More importantly, this version never succumbs to shameless, Disney-fying of the material to make it falsely saccharine or go down more easily for audiences.  It finds a manner of harnessing the inherent darkness of the story while showing positive light at the end of the tunnel for these children and their collective reawakening.  Plus, in a relative age when so many family films are qualitative dumpster fires and struggle to appease adult and child viewers alike, movies - and remakes - like THE SECRET GARDEN should be consumed and appreciated by as many as possible.  Magic and heart are on chief display here, and who doesn't want more of that these days? 

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