It’s a given, in any adaptation of Frances Hogdon Burnett’s literary classic The Secret Garden, that we’ll watch a young English girl named Mary Lennox grow from a sickly, unloved yet spoiled terror, to a young woman of empathy and virtue. The idea is that the girl will flourish under actual care—not just catering-to.
Yet it’s still something of a surprise to meet the Mary of Marc Munden’s new adaptation, played by Dixie Egerickx. Her pallor, and Munden’s flashbacks to a time before tragedy befell Mary, tell us almost everything we need to know about how and why she is the way she is. Her parents are both dead, and their servants have all fled. (It’s colonial India; cholera has swept the country.) Mary has been shipped off to Misselthwaite Manor, in Yorkshire, to live with her mysterious widower uncle, Archibald Craven (Colin Firth). The house is spooky, seemingly childless, with nary any sunlight and a neglectful uncle completely sewn up in his own grief. It beats being abandoned in India, but it ain’t great.
Mary arrives as a full-on brat attack, expecting to be catered to, dressed by her maids in the morning, fixed her preferred breakfast (bacon and eggs; who can argue?), and allowed to have the run of the place. So it’s news to her when it turns out this estate isn’t childless. She has a cousin, Colin (Edan Hayhurst), whose nightly weeping carries through the air at night like ghostly wails—and this estate holds more secrets than him.
Including, yes, a secret garden. A garden with nurturing, healing powers, where a friendly robin seems to lead the way to the best riches and the branches help a wayward girl scale the garden wall when she hears the dinner bell ringing. Where the foliage changes colors with her mood, shivering when she shivers. It seems altogether eager to prove itself in tune with Mary and her needs.
This new adaptation of The Secret Garden doesn’t skimp, in other words, on the qualities that made the original story so appealing—the sense of how personalities can bloom under the right conditions, and how pain, by contrast, can erode that beautiful inner self. There’s a bit of Munchausen’s Syndrome at the center of this movie, for example, tied to an enduring series of family secrets involving the two women in this story whose deaths overdetermine everything that follows: Mary’s mother and her sister, the Craven matriarch.
What’s strange about this new Secret Garden is that much of the real intrigue has nothing to do with that garden, and everything to do with the mystery of these two women, their deaths, and the artifacts—dresses, letters, signs of life—they’ve left behind. Thanks to Mary’s flashbacks, which are appreciably vivid, you also wonder very much about her life in India. We see little to no Indians there; we hear relatively little about the military circumstances that led to her family’s station. (We’re somehow still, at this late date, repeating and not questioning the colonialist ellipses and gaps that mar so much British literature of Burnett’s period—but never mind that.)
These threads dominate the movie and make it something more plainly concerned with mourning and regeneration than even the original novel. And it’s all told in an intimate, if not necessarily revelatory, manner. Indie cinema has long since learned—and prestige cinema has long since learned to copy—the intimate, trembling, hand-held camera style that forces us into characters’ world by keeping us as close to their faces as possible, as often as possible. So it is with The Secret Garden, with its subjectively-rendered visual landscapes, dreamy moodscapes, and ghost-haunted memories.