Frances Hodgson Burnett’s 1911 novel The Secret Garden has been adapted numerous times for film, television and the stage, with the most recent being a 1993 version produced by Francis Ford Coppola.
Times have changed, but the allure and magic of The Secret Garden was enough for the producers of the Harry Potter and Paddington films to give their interpretation, which does incorporate some narrative and tonal shifts but doesn’t feel different enough.
Dixie Egerickx stars as Mary Lennox, the daughter of a well-to-do family living in British India in 1947. Her parents dead from illness, she is found abandoned in the turmoil of partition and brought to her Uncle’s Manor in Yorkshire. Filled with grief and anger, Mary clashes with the unimpressed staff and her distant uncle (Colin Firth), before exploration of the grounds leads to the discovery of the secret garden, which holds a connection to everyone’s past.
The challenge with any familiar story is giving us a reason to hear it again, and with The Secret Garden there just isn’t enough beyond a pleasant nature walk. The garden is, as you would imagine, beautiful to behold; Mary’s dog Jemima is charming enough. But the whole thing feels monotonous, like a stroll we’ve all been on too many times before.
There is some supernatural imagery woven in as all the manor’s inhabitants deal with the trauma they’ve experienced (World War 2 weighs heavily in the background), but in real terms, we are watching child actors argue in pretty surroundings.
It’s hard to emotionally latch on to anybody. Egerickx is spoiled and abrasive for much of the film, near enough kidnapping sickly cousin Colin (Edan Hayhurst) in the belief the garden will cure him of his ailments. As for the adults, Colin Firth leans on his usual ‘stern aristocrat’ persona, with tousled hair to signify his struggle and the odd outburst as Mary’s adventures prod at some painful memories.
The normally wonderful Julie Walters is given too harsh a role as housekeeper Mrs. Medlock. It’s quite jarring to see an actor so adept at warm, charming performances play a cold character who seems to suspect Mary at every turn.
This latest incarnation of The Secret Garden will most likely be seen on the small screen, being released in both cinemas and on Sky’s movie channel. With this in mind, besides some impressive visuals it’s hard to recommend it over the superior 90’s version that’s also just a click away.