The Secret Garden (2020) puts a chilly stiff-upper-lip spin on an old classic.
There a sumptuous promise to this latest interpretation of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s 1911 novel “The Secret Garden”, bolstered by the handsome locations, that never quite feels fulfilled. Looks great, solid cast but somehow the magic just doesn’t manage to take root and bloom.
In the chaos of Partition, Mary Lennox (Dixie Egerickx) is found, abandoned, in her home in British India. Orphaned by her parents’ sudden death from cholera, she’s sent to live with her only living relative, her uncle Lord Archibald Craven (Colin Firth), owner of the remote Misselthwaite Manor estate. Once there, she bristles under the supervision of the strict housekeeper Mrs Medlock (Julie Walters) and, after disobeying an instruction not to explore the house, discovers her sickly cousin and a seemingly magical garden in the estate’s grounds.
With this being the fifth film adaptation, with the 1994 Ford Coppola-produced version looming large in people’s minds, the film starts at something of a disadvantage but director Marc Munden brings a deliberately lachrymose atmosphere to proceedings that captures the attention and subdues any sense of over-familiarity.
Suffused with an air of trauma and grief, there’s a bleakness to the story that never quite lifts and, damaged as they are, the characters themselves remain largely unsympathetic even as their tragic backstories are slowly revealed. Only Martha (Isis Davis) and Dickon (Amir Wilson) arrive with their humanity seemingly intact but their spark of warmth is too often doused by the chill wind of privilege and repression from the others.
It’s an interesting spin of the source material, updated by some thirty-odd years to reflect the horrors of the Second World War, to turn a lens onto the corrosive effect the oft-lauded British ‘stiff-upper-lip’ attitude to grief and loss, and how healing only begins when people acknowledge and face their pain but there’s a slight rush to it all, and every so often, the characters feel like they’re checking off a necessary plot point of the book rather than behaving authentically.
Ultimately, it’s a fine-looking and faithful adaptation of the apparently timeless tale of “The Secret Garden” and while it may not become your new favourite if you’ve seen one of the previous versions, it’s a good introduction to the story for newcomers.