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The Secret Garden | Review

Garden of Earthly Dismay: Munden Makes Burnett Mundane in Lifeless Remake

The Secret Garden (2020) Movie ReviewThere is no frigate like a book to take us lands away, and certainly when said book’s imaginative pleasures are reduced to generic displays of CGI and characters reduced to platitudinous shadows. Such is the case with the latest adaptation of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s classic children’s novel The Secret Garden, originally published in 1911 and has been made into film versions several times over the past century, most notably by Agnieszka Holland in the Francis Ford Coppola produced 1993 production.

The latest attempt at remounting Burnett’s text is directed by Marc Munden, a prolific British television director who dips into narrative cinema every now and then (such as with the 2002 indie drama Miranda, which featured Christina Ricci and Kyle MacLachlen). This latest version isn’t likely to reinvigorate an interest in Burnett’s previous adaptations or her prose with what amounts to a pileup of tedious approximations and clichés of her characters and themes.

What’s perhaps most ironic about this latest version of The Secret Garden is how the original text’s central motif is rejuvenation, something which Munden’s version accomplishes the opposite of. This time around, the narrative is set in 1947, at the partition of India and Pakistan, we’re told. Like the source novel, Mary Lennox’s (Dixie Egerickx) parents die of cholera (Holland had changed that to an earthquake), and she’s immediately ejected from her home in India to live with the hunchbacked uncle she’d never met, Archibald Crane (Colin Firth), in North Yorkshire. His estate is run by the imperious Mrs. Medlock (Julie Walters), who isn’t one to suffer fools lightly. After a haughty exchange with the maid Martha (Isis Davis), Mary settles into a pattern of exploring Misselthwaite Manor, where a shaggy dog and robin red breast guide her into the neglected womb of said garden, a magnificent display of foliage once the glory of Mrs. Craven, who died there, thus relegating it to be forgotten about. Mary discovers she has an incapacitated cousin, Colin (Edan Hayhurst), bedridden and supposedly suffering from some vague congenital disorder. The two of them eventually becomes friends, and through Mary’s bond with Martha’s brother Dickon (Amir Wilson), take it upon themselves to bring Colin to the garden because Mary is sure her cousin’s health will be restored there.


The most notable of Burnett’s trio of timeless texts (the others being Little Lord Fauntleroy and A Little Princess) generated a reexamination of the author in the 1990s, with Alfonso Cuaron adapting A Little Princess in 1995 (usurping the previous 1939 version, which featured Shirley Temple). But much like the CGI butchery exacted upon Lewis Carroll by Tim Burton with 2010’s Alice in Wonderland, the magic and wonder of the narrative are completely drained. It doesn’t help the human component is completely absent, either.

As Mary, Dixie Egerickx (who can currently be seen in a similar role in Jessica Swale’s Summerland) is written as a spoiled brat, and the trauma of losing her parents seemingly not factored in to her characterization (in previous versions and the novel, it was important to note Mary, though wealthy, had a toxic relationship with her parents, something vaguely attenuated in delirious flashbacks). Likewise, Colin Firth as Craven is hardly the mangled human he’s described to be, while Julie Walters is completely wasted as Mrs. Medford, especially considering this role netted Maggie Smith a BAFTA nod nearly thirty years ago.

This version of the narrative is scripted by Jack Thorne, whose recent forays into period, including The Aeronauts and Radioactive, prove a decided inability to tap into the minds and hearts of his subjects either as objects of intimacy or general interest.

½/☆☆☆☆☆

Los Angeles based Nicholas Bell is IONCINEMA.com's Chief Film Critic and covers film festivals such as Sundance, Berlin, Cannes and TIFF. He is part of the critic groups on Rotten Tomatoes, The Los Angeles Film Critics Association (LAFCA), FIPRESCI, the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and GALECA. His top 3 for 2023: The Beast (Bonello) Poor Things (Lanthimos), Master Gardener (Schrader). He was a jury member at the 2019 Cleveland International Film Festival.

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