The solace of a garden is accessible by just reading Frances Hodgson Burnett’s novel “The Secret Garden” published over a century ago (1911). The story has remained popular through the years as a best-seller, the basis of a number of plays, a hit Broadway musical (1991), four television series, and four films (the last in 1993). Colin Firth and Julie Walters are top talents in the newest screen adaptation.
My attachment to this rather quaint story stems from the Broadway musical (seen twice) with Mandy Patinkin headlining. “The Secret Garden” is an almost fairy fable that seems to defy time, feeling like it’s always been on your coffee table. The musical remained in the era set in the book, but on this screen telling, time jumps from 1911 to 1947 post-War England which doesn’t diminish the old-world beauty, charm and enchantment of the novel.
We follow the adventures of 10-year-old Mary Lennox (Dixie Egerickx in a lovely performance), a bratty, spoiled girl growing up in India who, when orphaned by a cholera epidemic, is relocated to England in the care of her moody, enigmatic uncle, Lord Archibald Craven (Colin Firth). His Misselthwaite Manor in Yorkshire, recently home to British soldiers during the Second World War, is shrouded in a forbidding, creepy atmosphere, filling Mary with a sense of foreboding. Her concern is further heightened as she adjusts to a daily life hinting of haunting tragedies.
There’s not a sense of welcome warmth as her uncle has taken a remote stance, locked up within himself, grieving over the death of his wife from years ago. Mrs. Medlock (Julie Walters) the stern housekeeper, meets Mary with an ice coated, dismissive acknowledgment, “you’re a plain little piece, aren’t you?” Mary does experience a friendly reception from Martha (Isis Davis), a servant of the house whose young son Dickon (Amir Wilson) is a gardener’s apprentice and has the ability to communicate with animals.
Though cautioned that certain rooms are not to be entered, Mary’s curiosity is heightened to explore the forbidding fortress and uncover its haunting secrets. Unusual crying sounds echoing through the dark hallways over several nights leads Mary to a locked room where she discovers a sickly bedridden boy. He’s Lord Craven’s son Colin (Edan Hayhurst), an invalid believing he’ll never be cured. It’s a revelation to Mary who’s unaware she had a cousin. Initial mutual hostilities gradually mellow into an uneasy friendship, with the reasoning as neglected children they can effectively function as a team in the drab surroundings of this derelict, decaying castle.
Suddenly, brightness and colour magically appear with the discovery of a walled-in garden not seen for a decade. A mood changing CGI oasis becomes a healing reality for the children who have been touched by calamity most of their lives. Dickon and Mary act as conjoined guardians to the sealed-up flora and greenery display. There’s lyrical poetry in the
musical adaptation (lyrics by Marsha Norman, music by Lucy Simon) and a quote which aptly supports this film as a welcoming beacon;
“I shall see you in the garden, I shall see you in my garden,
Where spring will come and stay. Where love grows free and wild.
Lift me up and lead me to the garden. Come to my garden,
Come, sweet day!”
With CGI assist, the visual pastiche of this enchanting fantasy nudges the viewer toward bookshelves to browse for the novel which is regarded a “classic”. You judge if the film deserves the same ranking.