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Secret Garden, The (2020)
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by Peter Sobczynski

"Think Twice."
2 stars

Up until now, there have been no fewer than five film adaptations of “The Secret Garden,” the 1911 novel by Frances Hodgson Burnett that has gone on to become one of the most-beloved classics of children’s literature. Although I cannot say that I have seen all of them, I am a great admirer of the 1993 version from Agnieszka Holland, which was nicely acted, visually striking and boldly embraced the darker themes present in the original text, and the 1949 version with Margaret O’Brien and a young Dean Stockwell is not without interest either. However, there have been enough versions of it over the years (and I am not even counting the various TV and stage adaptations that have cropped up) so that anyone electing to put the story through its paces once again had better find a new angle or approach to the material in order to make it come alive, the sort of thing that Greta Gerwig did to transform her version of “Little Women” into perhaps the definitive adaptation of that often-filmed book. Unfortunately, the result here is a clunky and dispiriting work that just never clicks, especially in the areas where it elects to ignore the text and go its own way with generally dismal results.

Although the setting of the novel has been moved forward about four decades to 1947, the setup is more or less the same. After a family tragedy leaves her orphaned, spoiled and snippy 10-year-old Mary Lennox (Dixie Egerickx) is taken from the mansion in India where she lived with her parents and an array of servants and sent to live in a forbidding mansion in the Yorkshire Moors under the care of Lord Craven (Colin Firth), a hunchbacked widower uncle that she has never met. Although forbidden from exploring the mansion by the fearsome head housekeeper Mrs Medlock (Julie Walters), Mary begins snooping about the place and eventually comes across Colin (Edan Hayhurst), who is Craven’s young son and who has been confined to his bedroom and convinced that he is too ill to do anything but stay in bed. Outside the house, she comes across a towing stone wall and behind it finds a bucolic garden seemingly hidden away from the world. Not only is it as lovely as can be, the garden seems t have magical healing properties and Mary, with the help of Dickon (Amir Wilson), the younger brother of the friendlier maid Martha (Isis Davis), contrive to help Colin break the psychological hold that his overprotective father has and take him to the garden so that he can be rejuvenated, both physically and emotionally, as well.

As those familiar with the story will note, the screenplay by Jack Thorne adds a number of new elements to the material but in pretty much every case, these additions prove to be largely useless. The big one is the odd decision to change the nature of the garden from a place whose magical powers are of the metaphorical kind as it serves as a catalyst for the physical and emotional rejuvenations of the characters who enter it to one where the magic is real—at one point, it even has the power to heal a dog whose foot was wounded in a hunter’s trap—and has the ability to solve everyone’s problems. To put it mildly, this take does not work and it robs the story of its cathartic power of the calm beauty of the garden helping to inspire Mary and Colin on their increasingly intertwined journeys as they attempt to process their grief over the loss of their parents in order to add in a bunch of CGI frippery that is not nearly as visually or emotional powerful as director Marc Munden imagines it to be. He does a little better in capturing the gloomy decrepitude of the Craven home in ways that make you think that a haunted house movie may be about to break out at any moment—unfortunately, this seems to have led to the decision to jettison much of the original ending of the book for a new climax involving the house burning down that replaces the real emotions of the original text for a sequence in which people are having long-awaited emotional breakthroughs while the house blazes out of control around them.

What is ultimately most frustrating about this version of “The Secret Garden” is that it could have be so meaningful to so many people if it had been done decently. Although the film was put into production long before everything went sideways—it was originally scheduled to come out this past spring until all the theaters shut down—a story featuring children trying to process their feelings of anger and confusion regarding a world in which death, disease and loss seem to be everywhere could have had great, if unexpected, resonance these days. Alas, those aspects, which are at the heart of Burnett’s original, have been marginalized in order to make way for glitzy-but-dull visual tricks, performances from the trio of well-scrubbed young kids that are perfectly fine without being memorable (the older pros like Firth, marking his second trek through the garden after appearing in the 1987 version, and Walters are better but clearly have not been inspired to bring their respective A games) and “improvements” to the story that ring false and hollow. Anyone in the mood to see a version of the story that manages to avoid all of these pitfalls is hereby advised to seek out the 1993 adaptation and let this one fall into well-deserved obscurity.

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originally posted: 08/07/20 09:16:02
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Directed by
  Marc Munden

Written by
  Jack Thorne

  Dixie Egerickx
  Colin Firth
  Julie Walters
  Edan Hayhurst
  Amir Wilson
  Isis Davis

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