fri 04/12/2020

The Secret Garden review - blooming charming | reviews, news & interviews

The Secret Garden review - blooming charming

The Secret Garden review - blooming charming

Jack Thorne brings another children's classic to life

Newcomer Dixie Egerickx impresses as Mary Lennox

With Netflix releasing Rebecca on Wednesday, who’d have thought that a kid’s film would be this week’s best adaptation about an estate haunted by the memory of the deceased lady of the manor?

With Netflix releasing Rebecca on Wednesday, who’d have thought that a kid’s film would be this week’s best adaptation about an estate haunted by the memory of the deceased lady of the manor? Written and directed by the team behind Channel 4’s National Treasure (a very different production), The Secret Garden manages to recapture the warmth and familiarity of a classic weekend family film, with just a pinch of darkness.

Based on the classic children’s novel by Frances Hodgson Burnett, we find recently orphaned Mary (newcomer Dixie Egerickx) on the way from her parent’s Indian house to her uncle’s vast Yorkshire estate. It’s as cold and decrepit as he is, with Colin Firth lurching through the halls, throwing away anything that reminds of him of his deceased wife. As Mary searches the grounds, she discovers that Misselthwaite Manor holds many secrets: her cousin Colin bedbound upstairs; a dressing room filled with memories of her mother and aunt; and of course, the titular garden.

The best children’s literature tackles difficult subjects head on, and The Secret Garden doesn’t pull its punches. Every character has lost a loved one, and each one deals with it in a different way. Mary resorts to rudeness and condescension, while Colin hides himself away from the world. One by one, they each discover the secret garden and begin to confront the past they’re desperately trying to ignore.The Secret GardenDixie Egerickx is a revelation as Mary Lennox. Even at her most insolent, she manages to convey the vulnerability of child still processing her grief; a challenge most adult actors would struggle with. She’s a near-constant presence on screen, and blossoms from a stubborn dependent to an adventurous free-spirit like the many flora of the garden. Children’s films live and die on the watchability of their leads, and Egerickx is a real find.

There were concerns from the trailer that the story had been chewed through the Hollywood machine, with CGI magic and forced dramatic stakes. However, the mysteries of the garden are subtly and beautifully played. Mary is prone to fantasy, and it’s never clear how much is real and how much is metaphor. Branches move to support climbing, and butterflies come alive from dress patterns. It gives the viewer, whether child or adult, the freedom to imagine.

It’s not all sunshine, either. In stark contrast to Ben Wheatley’s glossy Rebecca, director Marc Munden leans into The Secret Garden’s gothic elements. Misselthwaite creaks and wails in the night, and Mary stalks its winding corridors as if it were Hill House. There are no jump scares (this is a family film after all), but the haunting atmosphere plays as a neat counterpoint to the healing nature of the garden.

The film’s success should not be a surprise to anyone that’s watched a Jack Thorne adaptation before. From His Dark Materials to Enola Holmes, he’s especially adept at bringing young female protagonists from the page to the screen. Perhaps most impressive is the script's ability to mimic the growth of a garden – steady, patient, and ultimately satisfying.

This slow pacing might not keep the attention of some younger viewers, and with Colin Firth's limited screen time, his big denouement feels rushed and dependent on exposition. Still, The Secret Garden is a pleasant surprise, combining the innocence of The Railway Children with the visual imagination of Paddington. Perfect viewing for the upcoming grey weekends.

@OwenRichards91

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