There are some stories that just feel like they’ve always been around: The Secret Garden, in that sense, is almost immortal. I can’t remember a time in my life before I was familiar with The Secret Garden; it was always just there. It has the aura of a very old story, even though Frances Hodgson Burnett published it in the 20th century and it only became regarded as a classic after a fairly recent critical reappraisal. The original novel still holds up, and there have been a handful of cinematic adaptations over the years, each eager to introduce a new generation of children to its delights. Although this newest version of The Secret Garden, directed by Marc Munden, may not quite live up to its illustrious predecessors, it still manages to capture the spirit of the story that has enchanted audiences for decades.
Mary Lennox (Dixie Egerickx) is a spoiled young girl growing up in India when her parents are unceremoniously killed by an outbreak of cholera, and she is sent to England to live with her mysterious uncle, Lord Archibald Craven (Colin Firth). Misselthwaite Manor is a forbidding Yorkshire estate filled with secrets, chief among them Lord Craven’s invalid young son Colin (Edan Hayhurst) and the walled-off garden which no one has glimpsed in 10 years.
If this version of The Secret Garden has a fatal flaw, it’s that it doesn’t feel as though it really understands the soul of the story and what makes the characters so endearing. The screenplay written by Jack Thorne (who seems to have been striking out more often than not of late) is muddled and unbalanced. He hits most of the major plot points, but misjudges their emotional significance. The Secret Garden’s purest and most enduring strength is in the relationship between Mary Lennox, a cold, unloved orphan girl; her cousin Colin, a sickly boy perpetually convinced that he’s dying; and Dickon (Amir Wilson), the stout, good-natured village boy whose way with animals and flowers seems almost magical. But here, it takes Mary an hour of the film’s run time before she even becomes aware of her cousin’s existence.
And what’s more, the children of this film are not quite the Mary and Colin audiences familiar with The Secret Garden may recognise. Ordinarily, they’re depicted as two spoiled, stiff, obstinate little terrors who are utterly transformed by the experience of finding and caring for the garden together. Mary’s cold and caustic. Colin is imperious and rude, but also so riddled with anxiety and the fear of his own mortality that he makes himself physically ill. Watching their development over the course of the story is like watching a flower in bloom. But again, the portrayal of these children blunts its emotional impact. In this Secret Garden, they feel far more like ordinary, relatively good-natured kids who are simply lonely and sad, and thus have much less distance to travel in terms of emotional development.
There are strange narrative choices that undercut some of the characterisation as well, puzzling decisions that make you question if Thorne has even read the source material. Where is the fun in watching Mary spring to life in the garden when the very beginning of the film in India already shows her to be a creative, imaginative little girl? And Colin is particularly ill-served by this adaptation — his hypochondriac tendencies and “young Rajah” persona are almost completely erased, and his overwhelming fear of the garden doesn’t make a ton of sense. Their performances are strong and they do everything that’s asked of them, but you can’t help wishing there was more there. There’s little spark to the supporting characters, either: Lord Craven, Mrs. Medlock (Julie Walters), and Martha (Isis Davis) ordinarily have such a strong impact, but they’re barely even here.
But look, The Secret Garden is still pretty good. The garden itself is a joy to look at, and although the CGI probably isn’t strictly necessary, it’s a perfectly serviceable visual cue to highlight the imagination of the children. Misselthwaite too is a lovely old house, oppressive in its long memory, especially for the characters who already feel themselves weighed down by the past. The decision to set the story just after World War II is a choice that pays off, giving the film a powerfully atmospheric sense of grief and loss, and allowing it to more directly address issues of mental illness which are otherwise almost imperceptibly subtle. This may not be my Secret Garden, but I hope that it’s someone’s, and despite any qualms about the film, it deserves to be viewed by a new generation of kids who are undoubtedly in desperate need of a little magic right about now.
Director: Marc Munden
Writer: Jack Thorne
Cast: Dixie Egerickx, Colin Firth, Julie Walters