The Secret Garden, 2020.
Directed by Marc Munden.
Starring Dixie Egerickx, Julie Walters, Isis Davis, Amir Wilson, Edan Hayhurst, Richard Hansell, Jemma Powell, and Colin Firth.
When precocious 10-year old Mary (Dixie Egerickx) is orphaned after the sudden death of her wealthy parents, she is sent to live with her uncle (Colin Firth) and his sickly son, Colin (Edan Hayhurst) on a huge country estate. Here she begins to unlock family secrets and explore the seemingly magic surroundings, that will change her life forever.
Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden was first published in 1911, and since then we’ve had a few cinematic trips through the magical foliage, the most recent being the ultra-charming 1993 adaptation. There’s no point stamping your foot in a manner befitting that of our prissy young heroine about the fact that we’re once again getting another retread, because stories like this are very much needed as a tonic to the ills of the world, and well worth recycling for a new generation of children. However, you need to freshen up the flower arrangement with each new iteration by putting your own unique twist on things, and sadly this latest attempt is more like taking an amble around your local garden center at the end of October.
The film begins promisingly, albeit in a rather truncated fashion, as Mary is whisked off to an impressively gloomy and intimidating estate. Seriously, it’s like the set of The Haunting of Bly Manor but on a blockbuster budget. The set-design is gorgeous. This is from the producer of Harry Potter, so it’s no surprise that the corridors, high ceilings, and dark corners are sumptuously gothic. What with that and the fact this deals with death and war within the first twenty minutes, you might start to wonder whether this is for the ankle biters at all. That is until The Secret Garden is open.
This is where the film blooms or withers, and sadly the titular locale just doesn’t feel magical enough to inspire the awe and wonder that those who enter are meant to experience. The flecks of del Toro, such as when Mary perilously climbs a tree that’s subtly manipulating its branches in order to keep her safe, promises so much, but when the world opens up into the CGI landscape at the heart of the film – the odd wind infused colour change, or flower beds that grow as you run alongside them – you can’t help but feel a little underwhelmed by the spectacle.
Where The Secret Garden excels is in its casting decisions, particularly when it comes to its non-white performers. Amir Wilson, who you’ll recognise as Will from the BBC’s His Dark Materials adaptation, makes a perfect foil for Mary, playing Dickon, her “ee bah gum” speaking best friend, whereas Isis Davis successfully takes on the role of Martha, bringing a real-world weight to a film that could so easily descend into childlike whimsy.
Holding our hand through the story is Dixie Egerickx, who manages to step away from being an annoying little shit just in the nick of time for you to fully invest in her performance and character arc. As for Julie Walters, she could do wink-wink authoritarian in her sleep, and the same applies to grouchy old Colin Firth and the impending softening of his hard edges by movie’s end. Much like the movie as a whole, they’re predictably solid.
The whole exercise is pleasant enough, but The Secret Garden can’t quite decide whether it wants to be sad or joyous, about actual magic or that which can be found in the imagination of a child, and as a result lands squarely in middle-of-the-road, or garden path mundanity.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film ★ ★ / Movie ★ ★
Matt Rodgers – Follow me on Twitter @mainstreammatt