2 out of 5 stars
To re-imagine a classic children’s novel will always be a tenuous endeavour, because every generation has their vision of what these famous characters mean to them. Frances Hodgson Burnett’s beloved tale of The Secret Garden has been given cinematic life four times since its publication in 1911. The challenge is to see if the filmmakers can capture the magic that spills off the pages of the beautiful story of the orphan and her discovery of the mystical garden on the property of Misselthwaite Manor.
This alliteration of the coming of age story is moved ahead to post-war England where Mary Lennox (Dixie Egerickx) finds herself after losing her parents to disease and war in British India. She has been taken in by her reclusive uncle Lord Archibald Craven (Colin Firth) who provides her with shelter and sustenance, but little attention. Even though she is given strict instructions to remain in her room and to only go to certain parts of the house by the head of household, Mrs. Medlock (Julie Walters), she manages to explore a bit more. The young girl’s only time of solace comes during her exploration of the various portions of the vast estate.
As she strolls through the moors and overgrown gardens, Mary befriends a stray dog and a mischievous robin who guide her to the secret garden. A magical place that allows her imagination to sow seeds of hope and joy into her life. Thoughts and actions that begin to impact the lives of those who reside in the manor on the hill. One resident of the dark and depressing rooms of this haunting residence is her cousin Colin (Edan Hayhurst) who is bedridden and convinced he suffers from a debilitating disease. Then Mary enters his room and brings a fresh new wave of hope into his life. A relationship that grows from introductions to a series of covert adventures that involve their new friend from the moors, Dickon (Amir Wilson).
The Secret Garden is a tale that has been woven into the fabric of multiple generations. A classic journey that ebbs and flows between the harsh realities of this world and the beautifully imaginative vision of a child. Yet, it is risky to give it new life to a celebrated world with a modern spin and artistic revisions to the original novel. Unlike previous ventures that stay close to Frances Hodgson Burnett’s narrative, director Marc Munden pushes the boundaries a bit further than many faithful fans may be willing to accept. He chooses to move the story into post-World War II and the contrived conclusion is added unnecessarily for the sake of a more dramatic finish. These new inclusions fail to add anything to the overall cinematic experience and only serve as a distraction.
What does stand out about this production is the visual spectacle of the dream-like world of the garden. After a while, it seems to have a bigger geographical footprint than the Misselthwaite Manor estate itself. Along with the stunning cinematography, the majority of the cast does manage to embody the characters we have come to love over the years. Dixie Egerickx is a treasure and manages to bring the role of Mary to life and she gets the strong veteran support of Julie Walters and Colin Firth. These two components help to inject the magic into this fantasy world, but they are not enough to make this into a new cinematic classic. This version is not bad, but in the end, it does not live up to the visionary masterpiece that it tries to retell.
What should parents know about The Secret Garden? During this time of isolation, this film should provide you with the motivation to engage with a classic novel. There is a reason that this book has been remade so many times in history, because it manages to transcend time itself. The challenge for parents should be to take time to read The Secret Garden with their children and then watch the 1993 version from director Agnieszka Holland.
What are the big themes of this film that would lead to rich conversations with your children? Grief, imagination, hope, determination and the love of a parent.
And after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you. 1 Peter 5:10