The latest adaptation of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s classic children’s novel The Secret Garden — now streaming on Hulu — faces the conundrum of reiterating oft-iterated material: Being the same but also different. It makes sense that the CGI era’s first reworking of the story indulges a fantastical visual palette, but does it do so at the expense of its rightfully celebrated universal themes? Let’s explore, and find out.
The Gist: India, 1947. A sprawling home, once vibrant, has fallen to decay. The country is war-torn and devastated by disease (cholera — I looked it up). Young Mary (Dixie Egerickx), the daughter of a moneyed English family, is now orphaned and alone, scrounging for food and playing with her puppets. Months, it seems, pass. She’s finally discovered and shipped back to England to live with her uncle, Lord Archibald Craven (Colin Firth), a widower with a dire vitamin D deficiency. His wife and Mary’s mother were twins. He dwells in an isolated mansion with dodgy electricity so it’s dim and gloomy enough to amplify his grief and depression. The place is named Misselthwaite, in case you’re worried that it isn’t quite English enough. Mary is shuttled into a room by stern estate manager Mrs. Medlock (Julie Walters), and told to keep herself to herself, all the better for the aptly named Craven to compartmentalize his metaphors.
The once-spoiled Mary’s attempts to order around housemaid Martha (Isis Davis) kind of but don’t really work. Any more lip and any poking around where she shouldn’t, Mrs. Medlock tut-tuts, and Mary will be sent away to boarding school. So Mary takes to exploring the vast grounds surrounding Misselthwaite, because anything named Misselthwaite that’s not surrounded by vast grounds is clearly not a true Misselthwaite. She encounters a scraggly stray dog, and eventually Martha’s younger brother Dickon (Amir Wilson). Meanwhile, she defies Medlock’s finger-wagging and noses behind Misselthwaite’s many doors. She discovers a boy, Colin (Edan Hayhurst), Lord Craven’s son, confined to his room and his bed, his legs useless. She also finds her late aunt’s boudoir, an untouched shrine; she tries on dresses and jewelry, and reads the warm letters of longing between the separated sisters.
Soon, Mary chases the scraggledog and a little friendly robin to [INSERT MOVIE TITLE HERE], a sanctuary of lovely natural warmth and eye candy, and an abundance of free-floating allergens: A canopy of impossibly yellow blooms, a sea of broadleaf ferns moving of their own accord to form a tunnel, butterflies butterflies butterflies, ragweed ragweed ragweed (achoo). It’s only a matter of time until Mary and Colin overcome their differences and fears and whatnot so she and Dickon can sneak the ailing boy and his wheelchair out of Downer Manor and experience some life, instead of so much death.
What Movies Will It Remind You Of?: The 1949 version of The Secret Garden, starring Mary Lennox, is a minor classic, and I remember it fondly — from a viewing in a grade-school classroom! — for how it begins in black-and-white, but explodes with Technicolor when Mary discovers the garden. I know The Wizard of Oz did it first, but it’s still meaningful.
Performance Worth Watching: The film hinges on the mannered authenticity of Egerickx’s characterization; she brings out the story’s coming-of-age-isms with considerable earnestness and very little precociousness.
Memorable Dialogue: “That’s the thing. Loss changes people.” — Dickon, cutting right to the heart of all this
Sex and Skin: None.
Our Take: This 2020 Secret Garden is a convolution on a theme — a theme that’s still very much relevant now, and probably forever, about how embracing and exposing your troubles and grief are crucial for healing. Director Marc Munden presents a 55/45 visual-extravaganza/emotional-journey ratio, and he’s clearly enamored with his set pieces, the dusty-gray interiors of Misselthwaite and vivid exteriors of the forest garden, that make up the film’s central metaphor. With its felt-but-never-seen ghosts, narrow hallways and vast, empty entryways and stairways, the mansion sometimes threatens to take on a life of its own, but it never becomes a character like, say, the Crimson Peak manor — nor does it overwhelm the protagonist’s narrative.
The film takes the time to ruminate lightly in its ideas — the fine line between self-destruction and healing, the need to confront, not deflect, one’s pain. I’m tempted to say etc., etc., because it’s familiar material, and Munden offers no new thematic shades to the story. He instead alters it in superficial ways, most notably the way he blurs fantasy and reality when Mary trapises through the garden, and a hectic climactic sequence that feels like it’s pandering to modern audiences (and will no doubt rankle the sensibilities of purists). Such changes don’t make or break the movie, though. The notion that a garden is a place where the cyclical nature of the world and existence, of life and death, exist in full bloom — well, that’s still powerful in this iteration of The Secret Garden. The original story’s intentions remain intact.
Our Call: STREAM IT. This may not be the best movie version of The Secret Garden, but it still makes for thoughtful, quality family viewing.
John Serba is a freelance writer and film critic based in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Read more of his work at johnserbaatlarge.com or follow him on Twitter: @johnserba.
Watch The Secret Garden on Hulu