Movie Review: The Secret Garden (2020)

Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden is one of the world’s most beloved and enduring of children’s classics, having been adapted into three Hollywood movies (in 1919, 1949 and 1983); six TV series in the US, UK and Japan; numerous stage plays and even a multimedia web series. A new movie version has just been released and one has to wonder if this story hasn’t already been done to death. I would argue that there’s still some magic to be found.

Mary Lennox (Dixie Egerickx, reported to be in HOUSE OF THE DRAGON, the prequel to GOT, which is slated to come to HBO in 2022) is a spoiled and surly, 11-year-old who lives in India in the final days of the British Raj. After her parents die of cholera and the staff flees in fear, Mary is sent to England to live with her uncle, Lord Archibald Craven (Colin Firth, 1917; MARY POPPINS RETURNS; the MAMMA MIA! films; the BRIDGET JONES films; DEVIL’S KNOT; the 1987 Hallmark Hall of Fame TV version of THE SECRET GARDEN), at his Misselthwaite Manor in the Yorkshire moors. The neglect she experienced by her parents is repeated by Craven, who has become a recluse following the death of his wife, Mary’s mother’s twin sister, ten years earlier. Under orders from the manor’s stern head housekeeper, Mrs. Medlock (Julie Walters, WILD ROSE; MARY POPPINS RETURNS; the MAMMA MIA! films; the PADDINGTON films; FILM STARS DON’T DIE IN LIVERPOOL; BROOKLYN), Mary is told not to poke around the manor but Mary, who was never told what to do or not do, isn’t about to start listening to a servant now. She quickly makes friends with the good-natured Dickon (Amir Wilson, the West End production of THE LION KING), the younger brother of Martha (Isis Davis), one of the manor’s maids, and together they discover an ivy-covered door on the manor’s sprawling property that leads to a neglected garden. The kids set about cleaning it up, planting new bulbs and seeds, and in the process, they realise that the garden has magical healing properties. Meanwhile, Mary hears screams at night and one night she follows them to discover that Craven has a son, Colin (Edan Hayhurst, TV’s GENIUS), who has been confined to his bed with an unspecified spinal condition since he was a baby. Just as petulant as Mary is, Colin, too, has been neglected by his father. Mary, though, doesn’t believe there anything is wrong with him that the garden can’t fix so she and Dickon conspire to spirit Colin off to that mysterious and beautiful place where he can learn to walk.

Director by Marc Munden and writer Jack Thorne (RADIOACTIVE; THE AERONAUTS; WONDER) tweak Burnett’s story, shifting the timeframe from the Edwardian Era to 1947 but bringing it back to its roots with Mary’s parents succumbing to cholera rather than an earthquake, which is how they died in director Agnieszka Holland’s highly praised 1983 movie. In Holland’s version, Mary’s parents also ignored her because they were too busy socialising with India’s elite to care. I never understood how Mary was able to find forgiveness in her parents’ selfish behaviour. In Munden’s version, Mary’s mother was suffering from depression following the tragic death of her twin sister and her father was trying to keep his wife as well as he could, unfortunately to the detriment of his relationship with his daughter. To me, that scenario makes their behaviour far easier to forgive. Munden also adds a few modern touches to the production that some purists may not like. Martha and Dickon are now people of colour. Sure, it’s probably not too realistic for 1947 Yorkshire but it works quite well here. He also uses CGI to bring the garden to life, a technique that wasn’t available to Holland 37 years ago. Again, some purists may not like the garden’s regenerative properties being more magical than mystical but I didn’t have a problem with it. My big beef with this version has to do with the set decoration, which seems on the cheap side. The movie had a production budget US$20 million and I think most of that was taken up on Firth and Walters’ salaries, the CGI, and renting Harlaxton Manor in Lincolnshire and the other sites and gardens used in the film.

All in all, though, this is still enjoyable family entertainment. The kids are still a bit too cutesy for my taste but, compared to Holland’s Mary and Colin, Munden’s are much easier to take.

THE SECRET GARDEN is available now on PVOD (Premium Video on Demand) on Netflix. All being well, it will come to our cinemas in Hong Kong once they reopen.

Watch the review recorded on Facebook Live on Friday, August 21st, 8:30 am HK time!

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