In the years since its original publishing in 1911, author Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden has been replicated for stage and screen and has often been assigned for summer reading for many students, as was the case for this reviewer. It’s a story of renewal and rejuvenation bundled within a period piece which continues to capture the imagination in equal measure with the heart. For the latest cinematic adaptation, the script from Jack Thorne (His Dark Materials) shifts the details and the order of events to craft a more streamlined tale which maintains the tenderness and adds a bit of adventurous spirit.
Beginning in 1947 India, young Mary Lennox (Dixie Egerickx) does her best to survive after the dual deaths of her parents due to cholera and the abandonment of the servants in the house. Found by a British soldier, she’s sent to England to live with her uncle, Lord Archibald Craven (Colin Firth), on his estate. Left to acclimate herself to a strange home on foreign soil, Mary soon finds herself wandering where she isn’t supposed to, unearthing a secret that may have the power to heal not only her broken heart, but that of Misselthwaite Manor entire.
Die-hard fans of the novel, be forewarned that this version is not going to be the same as what you’re used to. This is a frequent breaking point for some audiences who feel that any adaptation should remain 100% beholden to the source material. In many cases, the changing of details can severely impact the internal message of the story by way of changing small, yet significant details (see Rorschach in Zack Snyder’s Watchmen); while, in others, it can reinvigorate the material and become its own entity (see: Amy Heckerling’s Clueless). Thorne’s adaptation of Burnett’s story falls closer to Clueless as the shifting of details and events does little to alter the core of The Secret Garden and, in several cases, makes it far more streamlined. For instance, Mary’s time with the English clergy is utterly removed, she meets her cousin Colin (Edan Hayhurst) before finding the garden, and the gardener, Ben Weatherstaff, is excised as well. Considering the film clocks in at 99 minutes, there is little time to dawdle, requiring director Marc Munden (The Mark of Cain) to keep up a brisk pace. Frequently, this works to instill a sense of constant movement for the story and, though hurried, rarely feels rushed. That said, there are a few moments where scenes early on feel cut short in the effort to maintain pacing, leaving the audience unable to truly get invested in the earlier, more foundational moments making the later emotional needs seem more shallow.
One thing’s for sure, Munden’s take beautifully captures the magic and spirit of the book through the use of stunning visual effects. Sometimes these take the form of wonderful transitions as Munden uses the flower-riddled wallpaper Mary stares at as the starting point for a shift into the next scene, whether in her imagination, her memory, or straight to the garden itself. It’s in how the visual elements within the garden subtly shift and change with the emotions of the garden’s occupants: one plant turning from a vibrant green to a startling red and back again as the breeze flows through its branches or how the garden physically reacts to Mary’s presence like finding small methods of helping her climb a tree without her realizing. These moments give off an air of Wonderland and lean into the more supernatural elements of Thorne’s adaptation, but they work within the larger theme presented of loss and recovery. By making the garden more alive, its healthy properties become more tactile for the characters and, therefore, more easily represented physically for the audience. In concert is a gorgeous score from composer Dario Marianelli (Paddington 2) which captures the adventurous spirit of Garden, along with the loss and healing that surrounds the tale. Perhaps one of the most impressive scores of 2020, it elevates strong scenes and is a lovely distraction in the moments that don’t hit as intended. For sure, it’s absolutely something which this reviewer would listen to during leisure moments or when elbow-deep in writing. Together, the visual elements and score take the audience on a sensory escapade that makes the rest worth it.
The Secret Garden is such a name brand on its own that, even without a cast including Firth and Julie Walters (the Paddington films), most audiences are intrigued enough to take a chance. Wisely, due to the trimming and shuffling of the narrative, the audience spends the bulk of their time with a small group of characters, making any sort of emotional involvement on the audience’s part easy. It helps that the performances by each are, in some way or another, compelling. We’ve seen Firth as the despondent father before in Nanny McFee, but there’s such a depth of sorrow here from Firth that the audience almost skips over the compulsory sadness and jumps straight into disdain recognize the real root of Lord Craven’s anger and isolation stemming from trauma. Walters isn’t given as much to do, comparatively, except be a more stern and temperamental version of her Mrs. Weasley from the Harry Potter series. In supportive roles, Isis Davis’s (Bruno) Martha and Amir Wilson’s (The Kid Who Would Be King) Dickon make the most of their scenes, often leaving more of an impression than anyone else. As the lead, Egerickz is more than capable, convincingly portraying a child unused to taking care of herself yet determined to need no one after the loss of her parents. Even where the narrative structure doesn’t allow for the story to pull you in to where its wants the audience emotionally, the performances from the cast pick up the slack.
Munden and Thorne’s take on The Secret Garden is a lovely escape, opting to explore the trauma of loss by way of remembrance, how the simple act can create joy in some and unbridled pain in others, and that one person’s trauma can seem a trifle compared to another’s while it is still real and should be treated with reverence. Considering the daily trauma occurring today as our minds struggle to process an ever-shifting perilous world, The Secret Garden is a soft reminder that things were never as we remember them and that the future still possesses the chance for joy. There’s a delightful hope in that thought. Perhaps this iteration will inspire others to share their stories to bring about a more collective healing. Or maybe just to listen more and yell and little less.
Available on VOD August 7th, 2020.
For more information, head to the official The Secret Garden website.
Final Score: 3.5 out of 5.
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