Synopsis – An orphaned girl discovers a magical garden hidden at her strict uncle’s estate.
My Take – Nearly every year, filmmakers across the globe turn towards adapting a well-known classic all in the hope of re-imagining and bring new life to the source material. The last time that happened we were entertained with Greta Gerwig’s wonderfully directed Little Women (2019), which along with receiving numerous accolades including six Academy Award nominations, also managed to set a new bar of future interpretations.
But anyone who would have hoped that director Marc Munden‘s adaption of author Frances Hodgson Burnett‘s 1911 novel would reach a similar mileage had their expectations squashed as like many other films set to release this year, due to the ongoing pandemic, this one too has been relegated to release on video on demand all over, with a possible theatrical run in the U.K. in October.
After all since its publication, this tender tale of a household awakening has become one of the most popular and oft-read children’s books, inspiring many adaptations over the years, including a stage musical, an opera, and plenty of film and television takes on the source material. With the most successful of these endeavors being the 1993 feature (which I saw very recently) from director Agnieszka Holland and producer Francis Ford Coppola, which gracefully found ways to bring out the heart of author Burnett’s writing which focused on the power of loss, grief and depression, and offered life lessons to blossom and thrive.
In my experience, family audiences especially always tend to resonate towards such stories, unfortunately director Marc Munden‘s take doesn’t share the same sense of discovery, as it offers weaker emotional arcs and most importantly values visual presentation over a moving viewing experience. A film about fleeing the bitter realities of the world for an idyllic garden paradise should feel more relevant and emotional than ever. It speaks to the film’s blandness that it feels like less of an escape and more of a 100-minute, unsatisfying chore.
Set in 1947, the story follows Mary (Dixie Egerickx), who following the partition of India and Pakistan, finds herself newly orphaned with both her parents lost to illness. Thankfully, she’s collected by housekeeper Medlock (Julie Walters) and brought to a remote area of England to live on an estate owned by her widower uncle, Archibald (Colin Firth), a hunchbacked man who demands distance from the residents of the house.
Getting used to her surroundings, helped along by housemaid Martha (Isis Davis), Mary spends her days exploring the grounds, spotting curious animals and encountering Dickon (Amir Wilson), Martha’s brother, who provides companionship for the spoiled girl. Hidden away in a bedroom is Archibald’s son, Colin (Edan Hayhurst), a bedridden boy who grows uneasy with Mary’s attention, finding the newcomer pushing him to join her as they sample the world around them, especially a secret garden which Mary discovers was once maintained by Colin’s late mother, a significant place of beauty and history that unexpectedly also puts Mary into contact with her own distant mother.
Working from a script from Jack Thorne, best known for writing 2016’s two-part play Harry Potter The Cursed Child, director Marc Munden tries to repackage the film with a number of flashbacks and time jumps, but it all feels like unnecessary diversions from a pretty straightforward story.
I get it, in order to stand apart from previous adaptions, director Marc Munden employs a darker approach with the emphasize on self-discovery, and the sense of how personalities can bloom under the right conditions, and how pain, by contrast, can erode that beautiful inner self. In order to do that, he tries to retain the intimacy of Mary’s journey by keeping close to the character, using tight shots and handheld cinematography to communicate the girl’s exposure to trauma, moving from the opulence of her family life to the isolation of survival.
With a doubt, this latest adaption is a glossy production, with admirable technical achievements in production design. There’s also a significant amount of CGI employed to help embellish Mary’s connections to nature, finding helpfulness from a robin redbreast. Here, director Marc Munden also visualizes the churning tides of Mary’s mind, with her sleep teeming with memories of her parents during happier times, recalling their decline in India, which brought tremendous confusion to the child.
And there’s the splendor of nature, with digital magic brought in to bring the wonders of the garden and surrounding property to life, creating a Heaven on Earth for young characters who need the spiritual boost. But, while director Marc Munden is attentive to all the visual flair, he has difficulty into tapping into the heart of story, keeping Mary a shrill personality for longer than necessary, which dampens the material’s move from pain to recovery, with Mary trying to share her developing wonder with Dickon and Colin, a profoundly troubled boy literally kept from the outside due to his father’s own unbreakable sense of fear. However, what’s most strange about the film is that much of the real intrigue has nothing to do with that garden, but the mystery of these two sisters, their deaths, and their dresses, letters, and any signs of their previous life they’ve left behind. Hereby sending the film confusing towards Gothic overtones.
Performance wise, young actress Dixie Egerickx is clearly a standout, and is ably supported by young lads, Edan Hayhurst and Amir Wilson. While in other roles, Colin Firth‘s drunk and reclusive uncle performance seems familiar, while Julie Walters and Isis Davis are delightfully likable. On the whole, ‘The Secret Garden’ is stagnant adaption which visually glosses over its sentimental themes.
Directed – Marc Munden
Rated – PG
Run Time – 100 minutes