The Secret Garden (2020) Review

WOULD YOU LIKE TO HEAR A STORY?


 

In 1911, novel writer Frances Hodgson Burnett released the book titled The Secret Garden; a story that follows an orphaned girl discovers a magical garden hidden at her strict uncle’s estate. While she did write other children novels, including Little Lord Fauntleroy (1885-1886) and A Little Princess (1905), Burnett’s The Secret Garden was considered to be her more popular. Additionally, like many fictional pieces of classic literary, the theatrical entertainment world has taken an interest in adapting the novel into various projects, including several stage plays, a couple of TV presentations (both as TV movies and miniseries), an animated cartoon adaptation, as well as a few feature length films, with the last one being released in 1993 and starring Kate Maberly, John Lynch, and Maggie Smith. Now, STX Entertainment, StudioCanal, and director Marc Munden present the latest film adaptation of Burnett’s classic novel with the release of The Secret Garden. Does the movie prove a glance from viewers or is it just a lackluster adaptation of the iconic story?

THE STORY


Set in the year 1947, Mary Lennox (Dixie Egerickx) is newly minted orphan when her parents passed away to the cholera pandemic in India; making the young privileged girl hardened by the experience and suppressing her emotions. She’s sent away to England and collected by housekeeper Medlock (Julie Walters) and brought to a remote area in the countryside to live on a delict estate owned by her widower uncle, Archibald Craven (Colin Firth), a man who demands reclusiveness from the residents of the house. Getting familiar to her surroundings and helped along by housemaid, Martha Sowerby (Isis Davis), Mary spends her days exploring the estate’s grounds, spotting curious animals and encountering Martha’s brother, Dickon (Amir Wilson), who provides companionship for the spoiled young girl. Mary soon discovers that hidden away in one of the estate’s bedrooms is Archibald’s son, Colin (Edan Hayhurst), a bedridden boy who grows uneasy with the new girl’s growing attention / curiosity, finding the newcomer pushing him to join her sample the world around them. Part of this particular journey together involves the discovery of a secret garden once maintained by Colin’s late mother, with its beauty and history putting Mary into contact with her own mother in unexpected ways.

THE GOOD / THE BAD


Working at a bookstore for many years, I have sold many copies of The Secret Garden in the children’s section (mostly during the “back to school” time for summer reading). However, despite recommending the title a few times to customers, I actually have never read The Secret Garden. Yes, that is true. When I was younger, I wasn’t really into reading a lot, so I never came to reading this particular book. I did, however, manage to see 1993’s The Secret Garden when it was initially released. I think I remember going to see the movie when it first came out in theaters (I think I was 8 or 9 at the time). Anyways, while I haven’t seeing the movie in awhile, I still remember majority of it (story, characters, themes, etc.) and still like it. I can see why the British Film Institute included in their list of the 50 films you should see by the age of 14 in 2005.

This brings me back to talking about The Secret Garden, a new 2020 film adaptation of Burnett’s literary classic tale. To be honest, there wasn’t much “hoopla” about this movie when it was first announced as it kind of went “under the radar” on a lot of the various movie / film websites that I occasionally browse through daily. So, when the film’s movie trailer dropped a few months back, I was a little bit surprised by its release. That’s not saying I was “shocked” by it, but rather intrigued by it as I wasn’t expecting a new adaptation of the story. Suffice to say, the film’s movie trailer looked pretty good. Definitely had a lot of that whimsical charm and kid friendly atmosphere to do Burnett’s story justice. All in all, I was looking forward to seeing The Secret Garden when it was intended to be released on April 3rd, 2020 (for the US release). However, due to the events of the COVID-19 pandemic, the film was delayed, with the studio pushing back the release to August 2020 and set for a VOD (video on demand) release for the US instead of a theatrical release. So, with the movie being released to “rent”, I decided to see check the film out and to see how this adaptation fares. And how did I like it? Well, I enjoyed it. While the movie does struggle in a few areas, The Secret Garden still manages to pull off its magical premise albeit formulaic to the touch. I would still prefer the 1993 version, but this 2020 version still has charm to it.

The Secret Garden is directed by Marc Munden, whose previous directorial works include directing several episodes for TV series, including Black Sails, Utopia, and The Crimson Petal and the White. With a background that’s mostly set for the small screen, The Secret Garden showcases a new foray for Munden to jump to and uses this movie to his advantage in flexing what he can do for a family friendly arena. In this regard, Munden succeeds; approaching Burnett’s literary source material with a great sense of sensitivity and a delicate care to make the film feel like a classic story in nature. In truth, Munden makes the film have plenty of kid friendly moments by exploring some whimsical scenes with Mary and Dickon exploring the garden as well as a few sequences that certainly will tug on the heartstrings. Of course, Munden, along with the film’s script, which was adapted by Jack Thorne, keeps a lot of thematical elements from Burnett’s original novel; touching upon themes and message of grieving loss and rejuvenation. While nothing original in pursuing these themes, the inherit story of Burnett’s The Secret Garden is a good way to approach such subject matters and the 2020 movie certainly achieves, with the film focusing its lens on certain aspect such as Archibald Craven’s grieving for late wife and the mystery behind Mary’s aloof mother. With the feature aiming for a tween audience, Munden makes the movie accessible to all and does it with kids’ gloves that makes younger viewers able to learn such powerful themes.

Perhaps one of the strongest attributes that this 2020 version of The Secret Garden has in its arsenal is in its overall technical and visual presentation, which makes the film standout greatly and is quite a visual feast for the eyes to behold. Of course, the movie probably won’t win any type of nominations for this upcoming award season or beat out any big blockbuster tentpole endeavor, but the overall visual look of the film stands out immensely. In truth, The Secret Garden is brimming with magical set pieces that creates a certain “once upon a time” storybook feel that juxtaposes the harsh / coldness of reality. Of course, the “secret garden” is visually stunning right from the get-go and gives off quite a fantastical element whenever its showcased. Heck, the actual garden looks more like a long-lost forgotten forest realm from mystical age of fantasy; complete with ancient ruins buildings, lavishing overgrowth vines, and an expansive of beautiful that’s quite breathtaking. Don’t get me wrong…I love it. It definitely offers a new element of magical whimsical to the story and its great “visual” piece for this new version. So, all the team for the “behind the scenes” filmmaking individuals should be commended for their efforts on this project. This includes the film’s cinematographer Lol Crawley and production designer Grant Montgomery, which definitely help the feature look wonderful in almost every scene. Also, the film’s music score, which was composed by Dario Marianelli, delivers a solid musical composition; one that evokes plenty of child-like whimsy in its more lighthearted moments and slow dramatic pieces in its more tender / dialogue driven ones. All in all, a great soundtrack that definitely speaks to the feature’s magical themes of love, loss, and rebirth.

The main problem with 2020’s The Secret Garden is that its simply too formulaic and predictable right from the get-go. Even without prior knowledge of either past film adaptations or of Burnett’s novel, the film feels like a lot of “been there, done that” throughout its narrative and struggles to find a way to differentiate itself from similar endeavors. Thus, the bulk of the movie’s story seems quite bland and predictable; following a too familiar narrative path that leaves little to the imagination in the way of “surprising” viewers nor challenging to think outside the box…. sort of speak. Perhaps this stems from Thorne’s handling of adapting Burnett’s story, which seems to push aside many various side character / threads to the side and making for a bit more of a streamlined version of The Secret Garden. Basically, its kind of what you would expect from a family friendly feature…. complete with young friendships blossom, cruel / wayward adults, tragedy at the opening, and thematic resolution. Its all presented with respect, but struggles to find a different rhythm of its own and becomes quite predictable of its narrative path and projections.

Additionally, part of this problematic problem also stems from Munden’s direction. While he’s still fundamental good at keeping Burnett’s base story relatively intact, I feeling that the movie is riddled with pacing problems, which makes the 99-minute runtime (one hour and nine minutes) much longer than what was. Some parts really flow well, while other parts seem to either drag on (creating those pacing issues) as well as glossing over a lot of important character-built moments. Plus, as a kind of a side-note, I felt that the climax ending of the film seems a bit wonky. It kind of comes out of leftfield and rather oddly. It was something that was made up for the movie (to give it more suspense) and feels superfluous in nature. I definitely can understand why it was added into the movie, but still comes up emptyhanded in being added to the narrative material. Wasn’t a huge fan of it.

The cast in The Secret Garden is relatively good and certainly have the acting chops / talent for their respective characters, but the movie (as explained above) struggles a lot of character development is kind of pushed aside for many of them; overlapping with each other as the main narrative thread becomes a bit more “set” on a particular outlook path to follow; rendering many characters thinly sketched. Perhaps the strongest character in the movie would undoubtedly be the film’s protagonist of the story, which is the character of Mary Lennox, who is played by young actress Dixie Egerickx. Known for her roles in The Little Stranger, Genius, and The Watchers in the Woods, Egerickx is quite an excellent performer in the movie and certainly shows whenever she’s on-screen. Its also quite clear that both Munden and Thorne waste no time in developing Mary’s persona by showcasing her love of storytelling, imagination, and the saddened by plight of events that befalls her. This is where the movie nails Mary’s personality; presenting her youthful child-like wonder in way that gets entangled / hardened by tragedy. Additionally, Egerickx delivers the right amount of blustery willfulness and vulnerability in whatever the scene calls upon her.

What’s perhaps the most confusing / frustrating part of 2020’s The Secret Garden is in how the movie presents the character of Colin Craven, Archibald’s sickly son and Mary’s cousin, in the movie. While young actor Edan Hayhurst (There She Goes and A Plague Tale: Innocence) certainly gets the character of Colin right by bringing the right amount of spoiled and frustrating to the role in a convincing way, the film’s script sort of pushed him to the backburner for most of the feature, despite being one of the main character of the story. This, of course, makes Colin Craven less memorable in the movie, especially during the film’s ending moments, which is suppose to be the more poignant part of Burnett’s tale. In contrast to the decision, Thorne’s script gives a little bit more time with the character of Dickon, another neighbor to Mary who befriends the newcomer to Craven estate. Of course, young actor Amir Wilson (The Letter to the King and His Dark Materials) is up to the task to making the character of Dickon rather likeable throughout the movie and, while the character has a bit more screen time than past iteration of The Secret Garden, he ultimately comes up short. Even still, I think he’s a bit more developed than the character of Colin was in the film and that’s a disappointing measure.

Of the seasoned veterans, actor Colin Firth (Pride & Prejudice and The King’s Speech) delivers another solid supporting role as Archibald Craven, Mary’s wayward uncle. Talented for sure, Firth is capable of displaying the right amount of emotion and theatrical poise and creates the right amount of madness / sadness within Archibald’s persona. Although, the character himself is quite flat as he shows up only for a few scenes here and there. Similarly, actress Julie Walters (Mamma Mia! and Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets) is rather good as the strict / tight ship housekeeper, Mrs. Medlock. However, like Firth’s Mr. Craven, the character of Medlock is rather stereotypical and kind of gets pushed aside. Additionally, while Walters is a quite a talented actress and she gets the somewhat / no-nonsense of the character, I still would prefer Dame Maggie Smith portrayal of Medlock from the 1993’s The Secret Garden. The rest of the cast, including actress Isis Davis (Lie Low and Bloodyminded) as Martha and actress Maeve Dermody (Carnival Row and Black Water) as Alice are similar to the other cast members; giving solid performances in their roles, but the respective characters are otherwise minimal / underdeveloped due to how the narrative is structure.

FINAL THOUGHTS


Orphaned and whisked away to the English countryside, Mary Lennox soon discovers a magical garden and the truth behind it (and those involved in its secrets) in the film The Secret Garden. Director Marc Munden’s newest feature takes Frances Hodgson Burnett’s classic literary novel and translates into a new cinematic light; adapting the iconic tale for a new generation of viewers of both young and old alike. While the movie does struggle in its pacing and formulaic narrative beats (among a few other minor quibbles), the film still manages to be charming to the touch, with its visual magic nuances heartfelt sentimentality, and thematic themes. Personally, I found this movie to be magical charming for a kids’ movie, but its still a bit problematic within its crammed narrative and underdeveloped characters. Between this version and the 1993 one, I would still prefer watching the 1993 version, which is the superior movie of the two. Still, 2020’s The Secret has plenty of family fun charm to make for an enjoyable viewing, which is why I would probably say that I would still “recommend” for most and maybe a “rent it” for some. Regardless, The Secret Garden, despite its formulaic nature, still manages to prove to be a magical familiar tale that’s heartfelt in themes and storytelling for all.

3.6 Out of 5 (Recommended / Rent It)

 

Released On: August 7th, 2020
Reviewed On: August 28th, 2020

The Secret Garden  is 99 minutes long and is rated PG for thematic elements and some mild peril

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