The Secret Garden

 

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A new version of a much-loved tale that proves to be something of a mixed bag.

 

Secret Garden, The

Fozzie and Dixie Egerickx

 

Like Louisa May Alcott's Little Women, The Secret Garden, written by Frances Hodgson Burnett and published in 1911, is a classic novel possessed of an immense popular appeal that has not diminished down the ages. That is why it has prompted so many adaptations, be they for the cinema or for television. However, given that the 1993 film of The Secret Garden, lovingly made by Agnieszka Holland, was so satisfying, one does question whether or not another treatment of it - this one originally intended for cinemas but now most widely available on Sky Cinema - is necessary or even desirable.

 

Nevertheless, even if many advance reports have been less than encouraging, this latest version asks to be judged on its own terms and for at least half its length one feels that it has been underestimated. Jack Thorne's screenplay based on the novel resets the story in the late 1940s and is in the hands of Marc Munden, a director best known for his television work. Despite his background and with the blessing of colour photography by the accomplished Lol Crawley, this is very much a film boasting good production values and an accomplished cast headed by two star names, Colin Firth and Julie Walters, albeit that both of them play what are really secondary roles. The Secret Garden is and always has been a work that puts its child characters up front. Here the assured Dixie Egerickx portrays the 10-year-old heroine, Mary Lennox, Edan Hayhurst is Colin the young cousin of Mary and Amir Wilson is cast as Dickon who becomes Mary's friend and companion.

 

The Secret Garden was always presented as the story of an English girl put in the care of her widowed uncle (Firth's role) after her parents have died in India, but the update means that the film's opening scenes can now take place on the eve of partition with its ensuing violence. Once Mary is back is England and living in her uncle's great house supervised by a housekeeper, Mrs Medlock (Walters), the story develops in two directions. On the one hand the spirited but over-privileged and caustic Mary will grow in common humanity when she allows herself to break through her loneliness by becoming friendly with Dickon whose sister, Martha (Isis Davis) is a servant under Mrs. Medlock. The other thread concerns Mary's discovery of her cousin who lives in the house but is treated as an invalid and is mainly confined to his bed. He leads a solitary existence rendered all the more so by his father being a distant figure unable to get over the loss of his wife. Both storylines will lead to a resolution in the secret garden, a part of the estate which is both wild and neglected but which becomes a place of healing.

 

The first half of Munden's film does contain some clumsily inserted flashbacks to Mary's time in India but it avoids becoming too sentimental and gains both from its able young players and from the control and authority of Firth and Walters who avoid overplaying. If the story always carried echoes of class issues, this version not only speaks to our times by having a young female as its central character but adds an extra element by casting mixed race actors in the roles of the wholly sympathetic Dickon and Martha. All that is to the good, but the second half misguidedly goes in for ghost figures and special effects which cut across the tone that has been established and, in addition, melodrama is given its head in an exaggeratedly big climax. By the close one can understand why some reviewers were disappointed, but audiences may well take the misjudgments in their stride and in any case there is a good deal here that can be enjoyed.

 

MANSEL STIMPSON

 

Cast: Colin Firth, Julie Walters, Dixie Egerickx, Isis Davis, Amir Wilson, Edan Hayhurst, Jemma Powell, Maeve Dermody, Anne Lacey, Rupert Young, Richard Hansell, David Verrey, Tommy Surridge, Fozzie.

 

Dir Marc Munden, Pro Rosie Alison and David Heyman, Screenplay Jack Thorne, from the novel by Frances Hodgson Burnett, Ph Lol Crawley, Pro Des Grant Montgomery, Ed Luke Dunkley, Music Dario Marianelli, Costumes Michele Clapton.

 

TX Films/StudioCanal/Heyday Films/Fundamental Films/Canal+/Ciné+-StudioCanal.
100 mins. UK/France. 2020. Rel: 23 October 2020. Available in cinemas and on Sky Cinema. Cert. PG.