The producers of this new version of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s enduring 1911 children’s literature classic, The Secret Garden, couldn’t possibly have guessed their film would open five months into pandemic lockdown, when many children have been climbing the walls in isolation. That timing gives the beloved fable of imagination, liberation and rebirth renewed enchantment. Screenwriter Jack Thorne shakes up the framework, expanding the backstory and creating a more dramatic climax, and the film is decidedly CG-heavy for a plot about the healing gift of nature. But the target audience of youngsters seems unlikely to mind those liberties.
Initially published in serialized form in The American Magazine, the novel’s eternal popularity is evident in its long line of adaptations for various mediums. It was first filmed in 1919, then more notably in 1949, with Margaret O’Brien as the feisty young heroine Mary Lennox, and again in 1993, directed by Agnieszka Holland for American Zoetrope. Three different British TV miniseries were made, as well as a Hallmark feature in 1987, along with an animated version and a Japanese anime take in the early ’90s.
Multiple stage adaptations also exist, including an opera as well as a 1991 Broadway musical that ran for 700 performances and has continued to build affection via its lovely original cast recording. A revival was announced for the 2018-19 Broadway season but the production did not materialize in that timeline; its status remains unclear.
This handsome new film comes from David Heyman’s Heyday banner, the British company whose output includes the Harry Potter, Fantastic Beasts and Paddington franchises. Directed by Marc Munden, whose background is primarily in British television (National Treasure, The Crimson Petal and the White), its storytelling could be more fluid. But the key themes come through strongly and the first-rate visual design and indestructible charm of the story keep it captivating. If composer Dario Marianelli’s rich orchestral score seems lathered on a bit thickly, well, at least it’s pretty.
Relocating the action to 1947, as unrest grips India on the eve of its Partition from Pakistan, Thorne dashes through the sorrows that mark the early life of 10-year-old Mary (Dixie Egerickx). The death of her wealthy parents and her subsequent abandonment by the servants at their opulent compound unfolds in a dream-like haze which continues through her voyage back to England. Sent to stay with her widowed uncle Archibald Craven (Colin Firth) at his lonely estate on the Yorkshire Moors, Misselthwaite Manor, she’s accompanied on the train by his stern housekeeper, Mrs. Medlock (Julie Walters).
Production designer Grant Montgomery has taken his cue from the 1949 film, dressing the interiors of the huge house in gloomy Gothic shades right out of Jane Eyre. Yet the shadowy halls and bedrooms — covered in ornate William Morris-style wallpaper or panoramic landscape murals — reveal a place that was once alive with beauty, color and light. The elaborate floral motifs and birds spark Mary’s vivid imagination.
The chilly instructions of Mrs. Medlock to the girl to keep to her assigned rooms and not go exploring contribute to a setup that almost feels like a ghost story, an inkling fueled by strange noises in the night. With no attempt to disguise the fact that Mary is an obnoxious child of privilege, the notion that something wicked her way comes isn’t entirely unwelcome. Still, despite her entitled attitude, she finds a friend in housemaid Martha (Isis Davis), who seems amused by the surly little snob. Days pass before she even meets her uncle, a shuffling, unsmiling hunchback embittered by the loss of his wife.
In the meantime, Mary ventures out into the grounds where she first spies Martha’s younger brother Dickon (Amir Wilson) in the rolling mists. There’s also a shaggy dog and a robin redbreast that point her toward a key that unlocks a gate overgrown with vines, providing access to a lush, green secret garden where birdsong fills the air. Less like a traditional English walled garden than a sprawling parkland, it has a pond, ancient ruins, mossy glades of tree ferns and palms, a brilliant golden laburnum arch and a field of giant umbrella-like leaves, a fantastical image that evokes Alice in Wonderland.
Cinematographer Lol Crawley shot gardens all over Britain to create the immersive environment, with an extraordinary range of flora from traditional landscaped English colonnades through dense, subtropical vegetation resembling a rainforest. The dazzling red of poppies against shimmering fields of grass is just gorgeous.
Ignoring instructions, Mary goes snooping around the house and discovers that the source of the moans and sobs during the night is her cousin Colin (Edan Hayhurst). The sickly boy is confined to his bed, with a nearby wheelchair indicating he’s unable to walk. Colin is every bit as spoiled and bossy as Mary, but they nonetheless form a clandestine friendship that leads to her taking him out into the garden, with Dickon’s help. The garden’s restorative force is first evidenced when the dog is injured. But the interludes outside the house also gradually have a transformative effect on Colin and Mary, with the children fortified by their bond.
Chief among new elements introduced by Thorne is the ghostly presence of Colin’s late mother Grace (Jemma Powell), for whom the garden was created. The discovery of photographs and letters provides Mary with a better understanding of the reasons for Colin’s confinement and of the grief that destroyed her own mother. In delicate transitions, Munden weaves images from the past of the loving sisters, with Mary and Colin as toddlers, into the action. The lingering spirit of Grace also helps the broken Mr. Craven emerge from his grief in a scene of near-tragedy. This makes way for an uplifting conclusion in which the various damaged characters are made whole again.
Screenwriter Thorne, who is no stranger to fantasy narratives in such work as His Dark Materials for television and Harry Potter and the Cursed Child for the stage, dials up the magic-realism aspect of the verdant paradise. The shift from metaphorical to actual magical healing powers may not please longtime admirers of the novel, but the script maintains sufficient ambiguity to suggest that it could also simply be the effects of childlike wonder and imagination.
The degree to which any of the plot embellishments add to the time-tested appeal of Hodgson Burnett’s story no doubt will engender debate. But to the generation encountering it for the first time, its pleasures should be unencumbered. While the emphasis on beguiling visuals slightly overshadows the performances, the cast is uniformly solid, and Secret Garden completists will appreciate the connection of Firth playing the father of the character he played in the 1987 TV movie.
Production company: Heyday Films
Distributor: STXfilms (select theaters, VOD, digital)
Cast: Colin Firth, Julie Walters, Dixie Egerickx, Edan Hayhurst, Amir Wilson, Isis Davis, Jemma Powell, Maeve Dermody, Rupert Young
Director: Marc Munden
Screenwriter: Jack Thorne, based on the novel by Frances Hodgson Burnett
Producers: David Heyman, Rosie Alison
Executive producers: Ron Halpern, Didier Lupfer, Dan MacRae, Robert Simonds, Adam Fogelson
Director of photography: Lol Crawley
Production designer: Grant Montgomery
Costume designer: Michele Clapton
Music: Dario Marianelli
Editor: Luke Dunkley
Casting: Karen Lindsay-Stewart
Rated PG, 99 minutes