The Weekend Australian - Review
Retelling of Secret Garden forgettable
THE SECRET GARDEN (PG)
Limited national release
Frances Hodgson Burnett (1849-1924), who was born in Manchester but emigrated to America when she was 16, wrote books for children, among them Little Lord Fauntleroy (1886), A Little Princess (1905) and The Secret Garden (1911), all of which have been filmed at least once.
In 1949, MGM made a version of The Secret Garden as a vehicle for the studio’s popular child star Margaret O’Brien (Judy Garland’s little sister in Meet Me in St Louis); the film was in black and white until the final scene in which the eponymous garden suddenly appears in glorious technicolor. In 1993, Polish director Agnieszka Holland filmed the story again and there have also been at least three television adaptations. This latest adaptation, made by British television director Marc Munden, comes loaded with the sort of trick photography and computer generated effects that previous versions never dreamt were possible.
Jack Thorne’s screenplay takes liberties with the original. The story now takes place not in the Victorian era but some 40 years later, in 1947, using the violence that followed the partition of India as an excuse to relocate orphaned Mary Lennox (Dixie Egerickx) from a life of privilege on the subcontinent to the chilly and ominous corridors of Misselthwaite Manor on the Yorkshire Moors where her reclusive uncle, Lord Craven (Colin Firth) resides, mourning the death of his wife. The house is vast and gloomy, the walls elaborately decorated with muted murals and glass cases containing stuffed animals.
Mary, too spoilt to accept her reduced lifestyle without complaining bitterly, is not happy. Craven wants nothing to do with her, his housekeeper, Mrs Medlock (Julie Walters) is unpleasant and only the servant, Martha Sowerby (Isis Davis), is friendly. She’s kept awake at night by strange noises and she has no one to play with except a friendly dog (in the book it’s a robin and in the 1949 film a raven) that leads her to the buried key that unlocks the gate of the secret garden that is separated from the rest of the estate by a high wall. Mary’s cousin, Colin (Edan Hayhurst), a disabled boy confined to his bed, proves to be the source of nightly moans. Mary also befriends Dickon (Amir Wilson), the free-spirited brother of Martha.
The birds and animals here are animatronic creations, plants in the garden change colour before our eyes and the artificiality is emphasised by the casting of the Sowerby siblings. In the book these characters were salt of the earth Yorkshire country folk and they’re not convincing when played, as they are here, by black actors. That’s no reflection on the actors, merely a comment on the increasing habit of sacrificing reality and authenticity in the name of colour-neutral casting.
Mary was always a spoilt and rather irritating character, and Egerickx can’t help but make her quite unpleasant for much of the film. Firth and Walters have little to do, and there’s a fleeting appearance by Australian actor Maeve Dermody, seen in brief flashbacks as Mary’s mother.
With a hectic but unconvincing climax accompanied by Dario Marienalli’s bombastic music score, this version of The Secret Garden is competent enough but compares unfavourably to its cinematic forebears.