As a new film adaptation of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s classic novel The Secret Garden is being released digitally, I look back at Agnieszka Holland and Caroline Thompson’s 1993 iconic version, starring Kate Maberly, Heydon Prowse, Andrew Knott, John Lynch and Maggie Smith. The film is on Netflix in the U.K.
The book and the 1993 film are so intertwined in my memory that I cannot remember which came first for me. This is the story of Mary Lennox, who loses her neglectful parents after an earthquake in India (they die from cholera in the book). She is sent to England to be with her uncle, Archibald Craven, who lives in Misselthwaite Manor in Yorkshire. Her uncle appears to be just as absent and neglectful as her own parents. Mary waits hours to be picked up as she arrives in Liverpool. It is the housekeeper, Mrs Medlock, who comes to fetch her.
Left mostly by herself in the big manor, with only the housemaid Martha for company during mealtimes, Mary wanders the premises and discovers a locked walled garden and a mysterious cousin shut away in his room, having never really moved from his bed. She finds the walled garden, left unattended for years, with the help of a robin who shows her the lock to the door. She finds her cousin Colin by following the sounds of his wailing cries. She revives her cousin and the secret garden with the help of Martha’s brother, Dickon.
The 1993 version of The Secret Garden was directed by Polish filmmaker Agnieszka Holland, from an adapted script written by Caroline Thompson. American Zoetrope, Francis Ford Coppola’s production studio, produced the film.
There is an elegant sensitivity to Holland’s direction. She translates perfectly Burnett’s portrayal of Mary. Holland introduces Mary as she is being gently dressed like a prized doll. Mary is a child that looks sternly in front of her, never lowering her eyes and always ready for a fight to impose the inherent power and respect she has been taught she was born with.
Holland shows this child’s sense of self-entitlement in the way she fights with her mother, just before the fatal earthquake, and in the sequence with Mrs Medlock when she tells her that she cannot possibly dress herself. Mary’s character though gradually softens after she meets Martha and finally as she tends to the secret walled garden with Dickon. But it is really after meeting her cousin Colin, who mirrors her own behavior, that Mary truly starts to change. Kate Maberly was quite perfect as Mary Lennox, creating a character—who is essentially a very annoying spoiled brat at the beginning— that is likeable and endearing.
Holland’s film touches on the magical imagination of children without pushing the magical realism too far. Holland instead emphasizes the real magic of nature, with time-lapses of