One of the quintessential classics that we all instinctually knew we had to read growing up was Frances Hodgson Burnett‘s THE SECRET GARDEN. While admittedly not one of my most favorite books growing up (I was more partial to Burnett’s A Little Princess), the work has inspired many to adapt the story for countless generations. Taking the themes of death, grief, transformation, and rebirth, it is no wonder that this story’s universal qualities continue to be revisited. Now the novel is revisited once more in Marc Munden’s take on THE SECRET GARDEN, with mixed results.
THE SECRET GARDEN introduces Dixie Egerickx as the orphaned Mary Lennox, alongside Julie Walter as Mrs. Medlock and a criminally underwhelming Colin Firth as Archibald Craven. The supporting cast includes Edan Hayhurst as the equally traumatized, chair-ridden Colin Craven and Amir Wilson as the more positive, adventurous Dickon. In THE SECRET GARDEN, the film follows a young orphan girl who, after being sent to live with her uncle, discovers a magical garden on the grounds of his estate. While the magic itself is meant to be more metaphorical, director Marc Munden tries to infuse it with a magic that ultimately distracts rather than compliments the tale itself.
It’s difficult to not compare this iteration of THE SECRET GARDEN to the 1993 adaptation. It is a classic for many, especially us millennials who were introduced to it via VHS. The blending of magic with the darker themes was something many remarked on. Where this current iteration suffers is in finding that fine balance between the childlike magical whimsy (mostly featured with so-so CGI effects) and the darker themes surrounding loss, neglect, and grief. Where the film succeeds is when it dives into the complexities of these darker emotions, creating a tool that many a child and an adult can refer to as an example of that complicated process.
THE SECRET GARDEN visually embodies more of the theme of rejuvenation Burnett originally dove into in the original novel. Cinematographer Lol Crawley sets a striking Gothic visual, creating a color palette resembling the dark, decaying feeling of the shadow that looms over the Craven household. As Mary Lennox and the residents of the Craven manor slowly start to heal, the colors shift. It is winter of grief turning into the acceptance and rebirth of spring. And no better example of this can be found when Mary finds the titular secret garden. As she too heals and becomes stronger, so does the garden visually. And, for a children’s film, the visuals help further solidify the broader themes contained within the story.
Where THE SECRET GARDEN thrives is in its young cast members. Relative newcomer Dixie Egerickx captures the complexities of Mary Lennox’s trauma and the character’s nonlinear healing process. We meet Mary after the deaths of her parents and her subsequent abandonment by the servants of the household before being discovered. She’s subsequently shipped off to England alone to live with her Uncle, who expresses little interest in the child. Between these major changes in her life, the strange wailing she hears at night, and being left mostly alone until she makes friends with a furry companion and Amir Wilson’s Dickon, there’s a lot of emotional weight Egerickx has to carry. And she handles that weight just fine in her performance.
While not a surprise, the adult characters take a backseat in THE SECRET GARDEN. Julie Walters and Colin Firth don’t quite showcase the best of their abilities. In fact, Firth’s performance is barely memorable as the grief-absorbed father. Instead, he is overshadowed quite easily by Egerickx’s and Edan Hayhurst’s performances. However, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. In the context of the story, while Archibald Craven also undergoes his own rejuvenation healing process, it is the children’s transformation and reconciliation that is front and center. And this is where both casting and directing come together to create performances that shine. Were it not for Egerickx and Hayhurst handling the emotional ups and downs of their characters, the film would be lesser as a result.
Overall, while not necessarily the best adaptation of the novel, Marc Munden’s THE SECRET GARDEN shakily stands on its own feet. While the “magical” CGI effects interwoven throughout the film occasionally detracted from that tenuous balance between magic and reality, the strength of screenwriter Jack Thorne’s handling of the complex emotions and themes is well-done. The strong, complex performances delivered by Dixie Egerickx and Edan Hayhurst help cement the foundation the script has laid out. All in all, I think the film is arriving at just the right time this year for both kids and adults. With such important themes, it is the right tool to try to help explain such concepts like grief. As such, I give this film my recommendation for parents and kids alike.
STXfilms’ THE SECRET GARDEN, based on the timeless novel, will be released On Demand on August 7, 2020.