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Family Movie Review: The Secret Garden (PG)

‘The Secret Garden’ is well-acted, but fans of the novel might be disappointed by its changes.

Kernel Rating: 3 out of 5

MPAA Rating: PG        Length: 100 minutes

Age Appropriate For: 10+. This adaptation of the classic novel keeps most of the plot in place: A tween in the early 20th century is orphaned after her parents die of illness and moves to live with her uncle in a decrepit manor; while there, she discovers a boy hidden away and a secret garden. Parents die or have died in the past, and there are flashbacks to fights between parents and children, in which the latter wishes death upon the former. There is mention of World War II and the devastating effects it had on veterans; a dog’s paw is caught in a trap and has to be removed, leaving the dog bloody and injured before it is healed; a young boy, confined to a bed for most of his life, believes he cannot walk and is bullied by his cousin into realizing otherwise. Some rudeness from the children and some cruelty from adults, and a scary scene with people running through a fire.

By Roxana Hadadi

As an adaptation of the novel by Frances Hodgson Burnett, the latest version of “The Secret Garden” isn’t quite a success. This most-recent cinematic version of the story of a young girl discovering a garden that needs her care and a cousin who needs her friendship leans heavily into the latter plot point but transforms the former, removing the novel’s details about gardening, growing, and the natural world. For fans of the book who particularly relish that narrative, this “The Secret Garden” might very well disappoint.

TheSecretGarden1 ChesapeakeFamilyMovieReviewBeginning in India in 1947, “The Secret Garden” (which advances the novel’s setting by 30 or so years) introduces us to tween Mary (Dixie Egerickx), a young girl used to being alone. Her father is mostly absent because of his work; her mother is ill, suffering from depression after her sister’s death; and Mary has no friends her own age, instead spending most of her time with her dolls and her puppets, to whom she tells stories. So when her parents both die of cholera, leaving her all alone as tension within India builds, Mary ends up whisked back to the U.K. to live with her uncle, Archibald (Colin Firth).

Where India was warm and lively, Misselthwaite Manor on the Yorkshire Moors is bleak and desolate. Everything is rainy, foggy, and grey, and the gigantic manor, Mary is told, is mostly off-limits to her. She barely ever sees Archibald, who is grieving the death of his wife, and still feeling the traumatizing effects of World War II. She is rude to the servants, whom she expects to do her every bidding. And with no one to spend time with, Mary devotes herself to exploring the manor’s expansive exterior, where she comes across a gigantic garden, hidden away behind a wall overgrown with vines and plants, and labyrinthine interior, where she meets a young boy about her same age. Colin (Edan Hayhurst) is her cousin—his mother, who passed away, was the twin sister of Mary’s mother, who also passed away—and he’s spent his life struggling with the guilt of his mother’s death. Told all his life he’s too sickly to leave his bed, Colin believes himself crippled, is angry at the entire world, and doesn’t have much interest in getting to know Mary, even if they are related.

“The Secret Garden” then follows Mary’s attempts to build a friendship with her cousin, and positions the titular garden as a magical place that can heal them both. In the book, the garden does so because of the love and attention the children pour into rehabbing the place, bringing the plants back to life, and learning about the natural world. In the movie, however, the garden becomes a literal source of magic: a location where Mary’s and Colin’s mothers used to bring them to play, and that might be imbued by Colin’s mother’s spirit. That change makes the movie feel heavier emotionally as both character arcs for Colin and Mary become about whether their mothers genuinely loved them, rather than how the children themselves heal. It’s a change that also loses some of the source text’s earthly pleasures—there are no scenes here of the children delightfully feeling soil beneath their fingers, or watching a flower bloom. Instead, there’s far more guilt in the narrative, and it makes the film more suitable for slightly older children given the reliance on flashbacks of dying and depressed mothers.

Putting all that aside, “The Secret Garden” is well-acted. Egerickx is charismatic as the imperious, spoiled Mary, who eventually softens when she realizes she’s not the only person living with loss and pain. Although the garden is more ostentatious than presented in the book, it is imagined with great detail and visual excitement; how the thriving flowers wilt and die when the children’s mood changes is a thoughtful way of showing us their feelings. This version of “The Secret Garden” is a diminished version of the original novel, but for children unfamiliar with that work, it will still entertain.

“The Secret Garden” is available for video on demand and digital rental as of August 7, 2020.

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