The Secret Garden is one of the most frequently revisited novels of all time. Written by Frances Hodgson Burnett and originally published in 1911, the book has gone one to receive several film, television, and even stage adaptations.
I remember watching the 1993 film adaptation a long time ago, but I was a child when I saw it so I barely even have vague recollections of its cinematography and acting. The one thing I do remember is the way it made me feel. Which was a positive enough feeling for me to be open-minded towards the 2020 reimagining of the classic tale.
However, it should be known that despite my passing familiarity with the story, I wasn’t particularly looking forward to watching the new Secret Garden. Primarily because the trailers did not really sell it for me. It looked a bit phoned in, and dare I say, boring.
Still, due to the COVID-19 pandemic I hadn’t been to the cinema in nearly six months and I was ready to watch something new, even if it was ironically yet another retread of an old concept.
And maybe it was due to my low expectations, or maybe it was due to the wonderful feeling of being back in a movie theater, but I have to admit that I liked The Secret Garden quite a lot.
British director Marc Munden is at the helm of the film and must be credited for making a lot of good calls in the visual department. Instead of relying solely on CGI, he opts for a healthy blend of traditional special effects such as puppets along with more modern computer-generated effects. And it really works at immersing you in this dreamy, surreal world that the secret garden encompasses.
The lush scenery from the garden itself is jaw-dropping in its beauty. It’s difficult to tell where the natural environment ends and the watercolory special effects filter begins. In the end, it all mixes together to create a mesmerizing picture.
Munden also managed to get some exceptional performances out of his cast. Dixie Egerickx dominates the bulk of the screen time in the role of Mary Lennox. As a young actress who essentially carries this film on her shoulders, she delivers some of the best child acting scenes that rival the works of Haley Joel Osment and Dakota Fanning. Not even the child actors and actresses in Stephen King’s It: Chatpers One and Two can hold a candle to Dixi Egerickx.
Young co-star Edan Hayhurst also brings the role of the bedridden Colin to life. His delivery and comic timing is superb, albeit a little more formulaic than Egerickx’s performance. Both Hayhurst and fellow actor Amir Wilson do a fine job honestly, it’s just their characters aren’t as deep as Mary. Wilson in particular is never given much to do with the one-dimensional Dickon character.
Colin Firth and Julie Walters turn in more than serviceable performances. They perfectly encapsulate the roles of Archibald Craven and Mrs. Medlock from their appearances alone. Despite also being cast in one-dimensional roles that limit their range, they manage to add depth and dignity to their characters.
The dog in the film also deserves props for some of the best animal acting put to film since the days of Lassie.
So here we have a visually appealing film with a strong cast of humans and animals alike that largely deliver the goods. What could go wrong?
Well, very little, to be honest. The last peg to complete the triangle falls on the screenplay. Which is definitely the weakest of the three primary components, but still sturdy enough to support the film as a whole. The script doesn’t overstay its welcome. It has plenty of heart and humor, as well as tragedy, to go around. It cuts the story down to its most basic elements, allowing the art direction and acting to fill in most of the details, while leaving the rest up to your imagination.
And in that, I respect this script, penned by Jack Thorne, quite a lot. I admire it for not bogging down the proceedings with too much exposition and allowing the craft of filmmaking to breathe by stepping aside and letting the process do its thing.
The message in The Secret Garden is also very timely and strong. It’s a message of gritty self-reliance and difficult but necessary introspection that is often missing from modern society. I am always up for a “mind over matter” message, which this film delivers in spades.
The society we currently live in is filled with the exact opposite: minds that have been coddled from cradle to grave, always afraid to step out of the safety of the suffocating comforts of home – divorced from taking any risks or efforts that might improve one’s mental and physical fortitude. Quite frankly, it’s a breath of fresh air to see on the big screen.
Nonetheless, the screenplay could have given us just a bit more exposition and just a bit more meat on the bones for some of the underdeveloped characters. There are a lot of times where I felt like the sudden changes exhibited by some of the characters weren’t adequately explained or justified by the script.
In fact, the relationship in the film that receives the most development is between Mary and the stray dog she befriends. While I admittedly enjoyed that aspect, I can’t help but think a lot of that time might have been better spent on developing other character dynamics too. Or at least giving us a clearer look at Mary’s past.
It feels like a bit of a missed opportunity, given the talent involved. But I digress.
On the whole, all of the pieces fit together nicely and compliment each other rather well. While The Secret Garden doesn’t offer anything groundbreaking or revolutionary to the genre, it still manages to feel kind of groundbreaking due to its message and its delivery. If you can accept its somewhat slow, non-eventful pace of storytelling, it is a wonderful and emotional stroll through the garden indeed.