I wasn’t the biggest reader as a kid. I liked to read but I’d never go back and read a book multiple times except on two occasions. The first is my favorite book of all time, The Phantom Tollbooth. The second, however, is a bit different and I’m not sure why. I re-read The Secret Garden multiple times. I have no idea why it stuck with me or how but the book stood out. Maybe it was the way it toed the line between actual magic and imagination.
The book is no stranger to film adaptations, having been made into one three out of the past four decades. Director Marc Munden is the latest to take on this task and probably the most magical of them all. Where previous films have dabbled between the mystical nature of the garden itself and a more realistic story of rejuvenation this The Secret Garden goes almost full tilt into a real magical garden, turning out a film that feels more like a wonderous storybook than a movie.
The Secret Garden
Director: Marc Munden
Release Date: August 7, 2020 (On Demand)
This version of The Secret Garden takes place in 1947, post-WWII, but does little else to change the general story of the classic novel. While the time change does allow for a bit more creativity in the costuming its not exactly clear why it was needed as it impacts nearly nothing else. Mary Lennox (Dixie Egerickx) is found alone and malnourished in India after both her parents die of malaria and she is left alone by the house’s servants. Spoiled and rude, she is sent to live with her rich uncle, Lord Archibald Craven (Colin Firth), on the Yorkshire Moors. There she eventually discovers not only her late aunt’s hidden garden, which had been locked away by a depressed Lord Craven, but also her cousin Colin (Edan Haywurst). Colin is unable to walk for unknown reasons but through a series of adventures to the garden the pair find themselves healing.
If you’ve read the book then you know the story on the whole. This adaptation takes a deeper dive, however, in the roles of the parents on their children’s lives and the impact of death on a family. Lord Archibald is a dour presence over the entire house in the film, never leaving home as he does in the book, and the movie dives more overtly into depression and loss in ways the book doesn’t, routinely offering flashbacks to Mary’s childhood, dreams of lost loved ones, and confrontations on loss between characters. It is, for lack of a better term, updated to a fuller modern understanding of how people cope with loss and growth.
Yet the movie also feels more magical as well. The garden itself is alive and active. Plants move to aid the characters, magical creeks heal a dog, and flowers bloom in the blink of an eye. Despite being so it never feels overt as the movie often couches this magic in the imagination through its stellar direction and cinematography. The end result is a kind of magic that functions more as a metaphor than a plot device and keeps the delicate balance the book had between reality and the “magic” of the garden.
This comes across so well thanks to Munden’s visually striking direction that makes the entire movie feel and look like the artwork of a children’s book. The colors in the garden are oversaturated and vibrant, exploding off the screen. Meanwhile, every room in the manor is oppressed by a single dull color that reflects the character themselves. Mary’s room is shot to overwhelm her, making her seem small and insignificant when she is in there while Colin’s room is a deep blue, depressing the entire place. It is the expressive coloring of a child’s book and makes the movie run rich with a feeling of an illustrated book.
When in the garden Munden moves his camera with a floating, dream-like quality that often drifts as if out of control. Shots are oddly framed with actors out of center as if the camera is happy to float freely through the film. It lends an air of a child’s imagination to the garden itself that, coupled with the colors, delivers a film that often feels like a dream itself. Yet it never turns to surrealism, always pushing back towards reality when needed. Even the film’s costumes adapt to this children’s book dream, often merging into the garden themselves in visual ways.
Of course, a group of bad child actors can ruin even the best director’s intentions. Thankfully, Egerickx, who is in almost every scene, is brilliant. Her portrayal of Mary is probably the most honest we’ve seen on screen going back to the first adaptation in 1919 (yes, I’ve seen it). She layers Mary with an honesty that’s rare for actors her age. The other two child actors have some trouble keeping up but not enough to ruin the experience. Sadly, Firth is mostly wasted as he’s more of stunt casting than anything else.
The biggest issue with The Secret Garden is that it seems to have bit off a bit more than it can chew by diving so deep into its themes. It’s 100-minute running time is great for children but actually feels a bit short for the movie itself. I’d be remiss to complain about the number of sumptuous scenes in the garden but it often feels like they push out some of the heftier character development that should be going on. This is especially true for Firth’s father character, who never gets to truly grow. Considering they changed his role for the film it would have been nice to have him explored a bit more.
Still, the movie is a delight to watch and delivers that same uplifting story you grew up with just with a few twists. Egerickx alone could carry the film if she needed to but the real star of the show is the garden itself, breathing life into the children and the countryside. That in turn breathes a bit life into us, the viewer, who have been stuck at home for so long dreaming of our own escape. The Secret Garden allows that for just a bit and it’s wonderful to have.