The Secret Garden (PG, 100 mins) Directed by Marc Munden **½
Frances Hodgson Burnett’s 1911 novel The Secret Garden, originally published in New York in serial form, has been adapted for the big screen many times. Most recently, and well remembered, in 1993 by the astonishing Polish director Agnieszka Holland. Holland’s version stuck fairly close to the page, but conjured up some beautifully designed cinematography, turning the qualities of light and shade into virtual characters in themselves.
English director Marc Munden, best known for the TV series Utopia, takes a slightly more literal approach to the problem of visualising Burnett’s world, throwing a lot of computer-generated imagery at the screen to bring the fantastical garden and its attendant house to life.
The story of orphaned Mary, sent back to England to live with her reclusive, hunchbacked uncle and his bedridden son, discovering a walled garden within the estate that seems to have healing properties, has been wonderfully receptive to any interpretation and re-imagining that generations of adaptors and re-writers have cared to chuck at it.
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Munden, working from a script by Jack Thorne (Wonder), sets his Secret Garden in 1947, referred to in the prologue credits as “the time of the India/Pakistan partition”. Which is fine, for an adult audience who might have been taught a little history at school, and may even see a few of the parallels Thorne and Munden indulge in, between the beginning of the endgame of the British empire, and this colonisers’ fable of lost innocents finding solace and salvation in an unspoiled, hidden paradise. But, for an audience of children, which is surely who The Secret Garden is primarily intended for, it struck me as another layer of obfuscation draped over a plot-line already struggling to remain visible.
Munden’s film changes a lot from the book. Not just the setting, but he also eliminates entire characters, turns what were once dreams into full-blown supernatural events and makes the garden into an otherly, not-of-this-Earth place. And yet, frustratingly, all this tinkering adds precisely nothing to the already near-perfect story.
In the leads, Dixie Egerickx (Patrick Melrose) is great as the initially dislikeable Mary – though the early obnoxiousness of the character is toned down a lot here – while the Brit-film mixed doubles all-star team of Colin Firth and Julie Walters don’t really have a lot to do except lend their name to the marketing campaign. Both are absolutely OK in underwritten roles, but seriously, a couple of less thunderously familiar faces would have been just fine.
The Secret Garden is as beautiful to look at as ever, but it simply doesn’t get across the screen like it knows where it wants to be and what it wants to say.
It’s not a bad film, but to play it next to the 1993 adaptation would show it up cruelly.