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For stories such as Little Women, Emma or Alice in Wonderland, there is a certain expectation among audiences for modern retellings with the arrival of each new generation. They are classics after all, and their ability to be plopped into new contexts and remain universal speaks to their lasting appeal as beloved literature. A release such as Marc Munden’s The Secret Garden should show off why it was time for Hollywood to dust the title off the shelf again and kindle the fire for the source material. The 2020 version of The Secret Garden, however, is a perfectly adequate retelling of the famed children’s story, but it's also not compelling enough for one to appreciate it more than before.
Written by Jack Thorne, who penned 2017's Wonder and the Harry Potter stage play The Cursed Child, his Secret Garden does make some changes from the original written in 1911 by Frances Hodgson Burnett – such as being set after WWII instead of earlier in the 20th century. But the backbones are the same as a young girl named Mary (Dixie Egerickx) is sent to live with her estranged uncle Archibald Craven (Colin Firth) after the tragic death of her parents. Mary is stubborn and spoiled, but as she spends more time among the manor and its surrounding greenery, she and her family come to terms with the losses they’ve endured.
The visual and technical approach in The Secret Garden is inviting from start to finish.
The highest praise one can give The Secret Garden is its overall sensory experience. It’s beautiful to look at as its unique cinematographic vision pulls the eye in from its opening shots. The movie cleverly adjusts its camera to tell the tale from Mary’s young eyes. An interaction with a soldier or male figure feels intimidating from the audience’s perspective while her time spent around the titular garden is picturesque, inviting and wondrous. The Secret Garden has the incomparable Dario Marianelli as its composer on its side, who’s emotional notes swelled your heart in Atonement, Paddington 2 and Pride and Prejudice.
CGI is obviously in a completely different place today than it was for the 1993 version. Not only does the movie make good use of this, it goes to some impressively imaginative places with it throughout the manor and with Mary’s traumatized memory as she processes the emotions that come with them throughout the film’s journey. Because of the expert use of the film technically, one is transported to an emotional place by the end of the film in a light and delicate way. The Secret Garden is nostalgic material for some and depending on how the book or story has influenced you throughout the years, that may just do the trick.
There’s just not enough Colin Firth, ok?
Sadly the character development in The Secret Garden was not tended to with as much love and care as its look emotes. Many of its jokes fall flat and they are not very memorable. Perhaps so much energy was placed into the visuals that some weaknesses in the script were pushed under the rug? If you’d just read the book before watching it, you’d be able to follow along, and the story is simple enough to go in blind and understand the purpose of the film or already find attachment to its characters. If only The Secret Garden had dug a little deeper, mainly with its greatest asset, Colin Firth’s Lord Archibald Craven.
As mentioned, The Secret Garden is clearly from Mary’s point of view and yes that is beautifully done, but it's not enough to make the story whole. Colin Firth’s Craven is going through much of what Mary is throughout the movie and especially considering the actor’s huge appeal there was room there to allow the actor to show off his talent and charm. Instead, he’s only given a couple of moments. The entire film rides on the shoulders of a couple young actors with not a ton of great dialogue to work with.
The Secret Garden doesn’t add much of anything fresh to the classic.
The Secret Garden does a good job of presenting the material, and audiences will come out of the film either remembering the classic from their childhood or remember it as an introduction to its timeless tale. What The Secret Garden lacks is something particularly special about this adaptation today that invigorates and inspires it to live up to its status as a classic. I don’t imagine many of us are going to watch this and run to their nearest bookstore to relive Frances Hodgson Burnett's story. Recent films like Greta Gerwig’s Little Women and Autumn de Wilde’s Emma from earlier this year set a new precedent for retellings and Secret Garden isn’t on the same wavelength.
As remakes dominate the family film, one has to ask when they feel necessary. The Secret Garden is lovely, elegant and endearing but it's the kind of field of flowers you’ll appreciate, breeze right through and forget about later.