Dir: Marc Munden. Starring: Dixie Egerickx, Colin Firth, Julie Walters, Edan Hayhurst, Amir Wilson, Isis Davis. PG,100 mins
The Secret Garden, Frances Hodgson Burnett’s 1911 novel, is one of those quintessentially English stories. A lonely, spoilt girl is plonked into the middle of a decaying estate, left to explore its corridors and its secrets. There are pinafores, picnics, and flowers in bloom. It’s no surprise that David Heyman, the super-producer behind both the Harry Potter series and Paddington, would take interest in a new adaptation. And it’s no wonder that he’d enlist Jack Thorne, the prolific British writer already responsible for bringing Harry Potter and the Cursed Child to stage and His Dark Materials to the small screen.
But this is a well-worn story, told and retold in every possible manner. The most fondly remembered is Agnieszka Holland’s rich and perfectly sentimental film, released in 1993 and executive-produced by Francis Ford Coppola. At this point, only a fresh pair of eyes will do, so Thorne makes several radical changes. The result is a vibrant, but muddled interpretation. In his version, the story opens in 1947, on the eve of India’s partition, so that the death of young Mary Lennox’s (Dixie Egerickx) parents from cholera leaves her stranded in a kind of post-colonial malaise. Everyone else has fled, abandoning her in the palatial home that once lay under the protection of British India, but is now rotting and exposed. The silk curtains are torn. The china is all cracked. That despair follows her back to England and settles into a thick, Gothic fog, after she’s sent to live with her uncle Lord Archibald Craven (Colin Firth) in Yorkshire’s Misselthwaite Manor.
Mary becomes convinced that the house is cursed. Production designer Grant Montgomery creates exquisite, dollhouse surroundings now drained of life – the doves and fruit trees in the wallpaper now a cracked and faded mirage of a once-happy past. At night, Mary’s head is filled with the sound of wailing, which she believes are the voices of dead soldiers, from when the house was used as a makeshift military hospital. Then she discovers the source of the cries: Craven’s bed-ridden son Colin (Edan Hayhurst), a boy of such porcelain frailty that he’s convinced even the scent of flowers would overwhelm him to the point of death.
There’s another discovery to be made, too. It’s a place beyond the mist and mud of the moors – a bright, exotic garden that seems to possess a mind of its own. Director Marc Munden finds himself swept up by its romantic possibility, egged on by the grand swell of violins that form the driving force of Dario Marianelli’s score. In the original book, the garden was ethereal, but not magic; here it breathes and shivers and shakes. It’s sumptuous and transportive, though weighed down by unnecessary CGI. The same is true of Thorne’s surprising inclusion of several Gothic tropes – namely a pair of ghosts, their pale limbs pointing Mary towards a buried past, and a climactic fire. The film only seems short of a poisoned spouse.
The Secret Garden has always been admired for its simple humanity – the moral that we must nurture people in the same way we tend to gardens. Here, the emotional pay-offs are grander in scale, but far less satisfying. The children are more invested in uncovering the mystery of their own childhoods than in showing each other compassion. Egerickx’s every word and expression has been filed to a sharp point, with a fierce intelligence behind her eyes. Her Mary is less of a mean-spirited brat than in Burnett’s story, more a product of immensely privileged surroundings. Her friendship with a local boy – the black, working-class Dickon (Amir Wilson) – sees a light drizzle of self-awareness settle on her shoulders. Today’s Secret Garden is modern to its core: socially conscious, but also wildly overstimulated.