The Secret Garden

NEW YORK (CNS) — “The Secret Garden” (STX) is the fourth film adaptation of the beloved 1911 children’s novel by Frances Hodgson Burnett (1849-1924). It joins such recent films as 2019’s “Little Women” in introducing today’s children to classic tales.

Directed by Marc Munden from a screenplay by Jack Thorne, this family-friendly movie seems apt for the time of pandemic in which we’re living as it deals with themes of grief, isolation, discovery, imagination and love of family.

Now set in 1947, this is the story of Mary Lennox (Dixie Egerickx), a spoiled child of wealthy parents who has grown up in India but finds herself orphaned due to an outbreak of cholera. Forced to return to her parents’ native England, she’s taken in by her uncle, Mr. Craven (Colin Firth).

Mary’s introduction to her new home, Misselthwaite Manor, comes via its no-nonsense housekeeper, Mrs. Medlock (Julie Walters). It’s a dark, forbidding place, shrouded in the mist of the nearby moors.

The unwelcoming atmosphere heightens with Mrs. Medlock’s instructions to Mary about what she can and cannot do and where she can and cannot go. There’s to be no “poking about” as she’s only meant to look into certain rooms and not others. But with Mary’s curious streak and vivid imagination, she soon finds herself exploring in places she shouldn’t.

That’s how she meets her cousin, Colin Craven (Edan Hayhurst). Bedridden and convinced by his father that he’s going to develop into a hunchback, he’s nonetheless just as conceited as Mary, and the pair of them have a grand time throwing inventive children’s insults at each other. Behind their harmless banter, however, are two suffering kids, both longing to know more about their deceased mothers.

The somber mood of Misselthwaite takes its cue from Mr. Craven, a widower who wallows in the grief caused by his wife’s death. Mary’s presence seems to exacerbate his bereavement because she looks very much like her mother’s twin, his beloved deceased spouse, Grace.

The rundown state of the manor, which was used as a hospital during World War II, seems to mirror the mental state of those who live within its walls.

The dreariness of the house drives Mary outdoors where she befriends a mangy mutt by feeding him the unappetizing mystery meat the cook puts into her sandwich. Frolicking with the dog leads her to a vine-covered wall. She easily scales it and tumbles into the enclave of the title.

The garden is unlike anything she’s ever seen. In vivid contrast to the gloom of Misselthwaite, it’s filled with color and an abundance of wonderful sights.

Mary and her new friend Dickon (Amir Wilson), the maid’s younger brother, conspire to bring sickly Colin to this oasis. Mary is convinced that its magic can heal him.

The visuals of the garden are magnificent, especially the overhang of beautiful yellow flowers that leads into it. In addition, there are ruins, bubbling brooks and ponds, all of which give the place its curative whimsy. It imparts to all who enter it the rejuvenation, whether mental or physical, of which they stand in need.

There is subtle magic here as well. Thus a bush’s leaves are seen to change color as it sways in the wind and a tree’s branches move of their own accord to provide Mary with footholds as she climbs. The lasting importance of the garden is revealed through flashbacks to the deep relationship shared by Colin and Mary’s mothers.

The movie does not strictly adhere to the book, updating its time period, for instance, by nearly half a century. But the basic plot remains faithful to the original.

Egerickx steals the show as her character is transformed from a willful brat to a morally evolved person who enjoys connecting with others and thinking of them more than of herself. Those around her undergo little development so the other members of the cast are not given as much opportunity to showcase their talents. Firth and Walters, however, both use what little screen time they have to great effect.

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The film contains mature themes and mild peril. The Catholic News Service classification is A-II — adults and adolescents. The Motion Picture Association rating is PG — parental guidance suggested. Some material may not be suitable for children.

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Sister Rupprecht, a Daughter of St. Paul, is a guest reviewer for Catholic News Service.

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