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VOD Review: The Secret Garden

August 7, 2020

By John Corrado

★★½ (out of 4)

First published in 1911, British author Frances Hodgson Burnett’s beloved children’s novel The Secret Garden has been adapted for the big and small screen numerous times over the years, with the most famous adaptations being the movie versions that were released in 1949 and 1993.

This story, which was first told over a hundred years ago but still retains its power, has now gotten a new adaptation in the form of director Marc Munden’s film The Secret Garden, and his version certainly has a lot of star-power behind it.

It’s produced by David Heyman, who also helped bring the Harry Potter and Paddington films to the screen, and it features Colin Firth and Julie Walters in key supporting roles. This is certainly enough to peak the interest of many viewers, and Munden’s film is a handsomely mounted production.

But aside from its decent performances and assorted moments of visual splendour, this adaptation also doesn’t really offer anything new or that hasn’t been done better in the other versions. The story remains the same. Mary Lennox (Dixie Egerickx) is a spoiled British girl who was born in India to wealthy white parents. At the start of the film, Mary is alone. Both of her parents have died, and she is sent to England to live with her uncle, Lord Archibald Craven (Firth), at Misselthwaite Manor, a sprawling estate on the Yorkshire Moors where much of the story takes place.

At first, Mary rarely sees her uncle, who leaves her with strict rules about where she can and can’t go in the house, and she is mostly looked after by the older housekeeper Mrs. Medlock (Walters) and a kind maid named Martha (Isis Davis). While exploring the grounds, Mary discovers a hidden garden that becomes the setting for adventures with Martha’s younger brother Dickon (Amir Wilson). One night, Mary meets her cousin Colin (Edan Hayhurst), a sickly boy who is kept confined to his bed in a hidden room, and she becomes determined to bring him to the garden in hopes that it will help heal him.

There certainly are elements of this adaptation that I enjoyed. Egerickx does a fine job of carrying the film, and there are some nicely handled moments of magical realism as Mary explores the garden and discovers what it means to her family. The art direction is also impressive throughout. The halls of Misselthwaite Manor are appropriately foreboding, and the titular garden is beautifully realized onscreen, a magical place filled with exotic plants and bursting colours.

While the film takes a bit too long to get going during its somewhat meandering first act, the plot and characters do come into sharper focus as it goes along. Even if the power of Burnett’s text feels a bit muted this time around, the emotional pull of the story is still felt in the movie’s second half. The book has always been celebrated for the way that it deals with grief and loss in a way that is accessible to young audiences, and these elements are thankfully not completely lost in translation.

But the film as a whole also seems a bit stilted, and often lacks the genuine spark of magic that was needed to really justify another adaptation of this classic story. Burnett’s book has endured for the way that it celebrates the power of imagination, but Munden’s film takes a fairly unimaginative approach to retelling it onscreen. At times I was left wondering what this material would look like in the hands of a filmmaker like Guillermo del Toro, who would have mined the story for its true gothic potential.

The film never fully blooms into feeling like a full-fledged classic, and the 1993 version that I remember watching as a kid remains the superior adaptation. But The Secret Garden is still a serviceable retelling of this story for a new generation of kids, that features enough visual appeal to keep us watching.

The Secret Garden is being released today on a variety of digital and VOD platforms. It’s being distributed in Canada by Elevation Pictures.

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