THE SECRET GARDEN poster | ©2020 STX Films

THE SECRET GARDEN poster | ©2020 STX Films

Rating: PG
Stars: Daisy Egerikx, Colin Firth, Julie Walters, Edan Hayhurst, Amir Wilson, Isis Davis
Writer: Jack Thorne, based on the novel by Frances Hodgson Burnett
Director: Marc Munden
Distributor: STX Films
Release Date: August 7, 2020

THE SECRET GARDEN is based on Frances Hodgson Burnett’s 1911 novel. It has been adapted for the screen many times before. So what’s the 2020 version like?

Director Marc Munden and screenwriter Jack Thorne have updated the action to 1947. As subtitles explain to us, it is the “eve of Partition,” when India and Pakistan are splitting into separate countries. Imaginative little Mary (Daisy Egerikx), daughter of a British officer stationed in India and his wife, doesn’t know anything is amiss until she wakes up in the morning to find no one in the large house, smashed furniture all around and the sound of gunfire in the distance.

Mary is eventually found and rescued by the British military. Her parents have died of cholera, and Mary is shipped off to England, a country she does not remember, to the Yorkshire estate of her uncle, Lord Archibald Craven (Colin Firth). Lord Archibald does not want to see his niece – or anyone else – so Mary is left to her own devices. At first incredibly rude based on her upbringing, Mary starts to behave more sociably towards others.

When Mary ventures outside, she encounters a friendly stray dog (a scene-stealer, real name Fozzie), who leads her to a hidden wall. Mary clambers over the wall and finds herself in an immense garden that she believes is magical. Since it’s grey and misty outside the garden, and inside it’s filled with sunshine and tropical plants not normally associated with the north of England, we’re inclined to agree with Mary about the place.

Mary takes it upon herself to try to help her sickly cousin Colin (Edan Hayhurst), even though he at first is even more entitled and aggrieved than she is. Mary also befriends a local working-class lad, Dickon (Amir Wilson), who is quick to agree to assist her in her quests.

This edition of THE SECRET GARDEN is visually beautiful. Even the wallpaper in the hose is evocative, and the notion of Mary as a storyteller is engaging.

However, there are some weird tonal matters. The film isn’t explicitly supernatural, but that’s the only handy explanation for how some of these plants can bloom in the untended and not remotely tropical setting. Yes, we are seeing the garden through Mary’s eyes, but there’s a blurring between fantasy and reality that doesn’t play as fully thought-out.

Some story elements don’t entirely line up, either. Mary blames herself for her mother’s death, but not her father’s, even though (according to dialogue) both parents died of the same disease. It also doesn’t make sense that Mary’s father would have left her alone with the servants as chaos sweeps the country. Then there’s the matter of Colin’s health. What probably read as plausible back when Hodgson first wrote her novel – oh, those inscrutable depressed adults! – now plays as monumentally bizarre.

Even when Mary is being contrary in the early going, Egerikx shows us the fear and anxiety beneath her bad behavior. Once the character is allowed to bloom, she charms. Hayhurst plays Colin’s moment-to-moment swings with conviction, and Wilson is likable as the forthright Dickon. Firth plays Lord Archibald with appropriate sorrow, but it’s hard to imagine how any actor could craft a performance that would fill in some considerable blanks in the script.

It’s difficult to know exactly who this remake of THE SECRET GARDEN is for. It feels very much like the kind of English children’s film made in the ’60s and early ‘70s. This means it doesn’t easily line up with the pop culture appetites of a lot of today’s youngsters. It seems like the target audience is grown-ups who are nostalgic for this kind of entertainment, but the tone appears to be aimed at viewers of Mary’s age. The adults are now much more likely to notice plot holes that won’t bother little ones, who may be put off by the deliberate pace and melancholy undertones.

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