The Secret Garden review: A messy adaptation

The Secret Garden cast: Dixie Egerickx, Julie Walters, Colin Firth, Amir Wilson, Edan Hayhurst
The Secret Garden director: Marc Munden
The Secret Garden rating: Two and a half stars

The 1911 novel by Frances Hodgson Burnett, by the same name, about love and loss, childhood and growing up, finds yet another screen adaptation in this attempt. There is magic here, but not in the places where the film wants you to look. It’s not in the overwhelming, brooding castle, its long and dark corridors, its flickering lights, its ghoulish wallpaper, its foggy moor or the people toiling away in its thankless depths — despite the atmosphere this builds up. It’s in the three children at the heart of the story, who rise above and around all this, and from whom the film keeps constantly straying.

Munden’s version also takes an inordinately long and circuitous route to the point of the story, with the secret garden and its significance not likely to be clear to people who haven’t read the book.

Mary (Egerickx) lives an indigent life filled with servants and stories in colonial India with her wealthy parents. Her mother seems always sickly, and over a course of two days, both parents die of cholera, with Mary discovered a couple of days later living alone in their house, unwashed, in dirty clothes, eating leftovers that have gone bad. She is packed off to live with her uncle, a Mr Archibald Craven, who lives a retired, isolated life beyond the moor in Yorkshire, England. Mary arrives there still a willful child, demanding that she needs help to get dressed and won’t have anything but her favourite foods. It’s not just the stern housekeeper or the maidservant she soon befriends who set her right on that count. It’s also the time she spends outdoors exploring — and there seem to be endless grounds to explore, though Mary remains surprisingly within earshot of the house.

Craven (Firth) only has one brief meeting with Mary, to tell her to not come in his way. He is hunchbacked (unnoticeable), explaining his reluctance to be in public. However, the film also goes on to forget about him altogether, missing a chance to explore the clash of two stubborn souls that the above brief scene promises

Egerickx is quite good as Mary, adventurous and unafraid, not required to temper any of those qualities to account for her gender. She holds her own against the two older boys she befriends on the premises — the maid servant’s brother Dickon (Wilson) and her cousin and Craven’s son Colin (Hayhurst). Colin spends his days in bed, convinced and led to believe he is hunchbacked as well, and has no use of his legs.

How Mary draws Colin out, breaking through the barriers he has built around himself, is the best part of The Secret Garden. The rest of the stuff, about their respective mothers (who were sisters), their special bond and what it does to their children, the garden and what it meant to them, the dog and the robin, a key and a gate, a pond and a tree, float in and out in a confused manner — suggesting a connection that is never very clear.

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