An orphaned girl discovers a magical garden hidden at her strict uncle’s estate.
I was underwhelmed by The Secret Garden but not the secret garden. The film feels soulless, its magic and reality uneasy (flower)bedfellows; while the garden is a gorgeously tangled, artfully curated wilderness housing everything a child, kept captive by an adult world (Mary Lennox) or within a gloomy Victorian pile (her cousin Colin Craven), might imagine.
The colours are glorious, the scale awe-inspiring. Golden yellow laburnum becomes a blazing ceiling; scarlet poppies circle an ancient tree with a swing; flowers of all kinds appear as Mary and her new friend Dickon run down a wide path between the beds.
The garden is hidden behind a stone wall overwhelmed with twisting branches and creepers. Later Hector the stray dog leads Mary to where the giant rusty key to the big gate has lain hidden for years.
This is a film about grief, and how it can become a prison, keeping us repeating the same actions, leading to the same outcomes.
It’s never clear whether the garden is magically healing the children or if they are bringing it back to life, or both; though each section of the garden looks as if it has been conjured up from fairytales in the mind of a child desperate to be nurtured and free, but hemmed in by adults’ pain: ruins, waterfalls, magical blooms.
It’s 1947 and Mary (Dixie Egerickx) is newly arrived at Misselthwaite Manor, the large and ugly house on the Yorkshire moors owned by her uncle Archibald Craven (an underused and not particularly memorable Colin Firth). He is still grief-stricken over his dead wife Grace (Mary’s mother’s twin sister) and is infecting the house with his misery. Mary has come from India, on the eve of Partition; her parents have died of cholera and she has been discovered filthy and hungry in their once-elegant house.
Once in Yorkshire, she’s warned not to go exploring in the house, and isn’t even told about her invalid cousin Colin (Edan Hayhurst), whom she discovers after following the sounds of his cries. Colin is kept bedbound after being told by his father that he is ill and dying; the no-nonsense Mary decides to ignore his dramatic wails and, with Dickon’s help, forces him outside in his wheelchair, and into the newly-discovered garden.
In the garden magic blooms, though the manor is a dour, slumbering giant. The moors and grounds are exceptionally misty, like the grief that swirls around them all. Everyone is living their lives on a loop until Mary arrives with her self-confidence and rudeness and tears a hole in the invisible walls around them.
Everywhere, Mary and the other children’s smallness, in a world where they are incidental and often ignored, is emphasised. Giant plants tower over them. In the big house, the rooms are vast and barely furnished; Mary’s bedroom is enormous with only a huge rocking horse and a single bed in the middle.
I’m not at all keen on stories where children, however rude, are tasked with saving adults; in this case, the gloomy Archibald, a character with no redeeming features. Being a catalyst is one thing, as Mary’s arrival brings her freshness to this musty world – risking one’s life, as she does later, when she goes into the burning mansion to find him, is quite another.
Still, her actions and investigations free Archibald and Colin, and fill in the blanks for both cousins about their early years and their mothers’ love for them.
Egerickx – last seen in WW2 drama Summerland, another film where children had to redeem a crotchety middle-aged person (we’re not all bad, honestly) – is very good, her boldness masking not just loneliness but also abandonment, brought up the focus of her parents’ world before having that snatched away from her. Imperious way beyond her years and accomplishments, Mary’s interactions with housekeeper Mrs Medlock (Julie Walters) are a hoot; in fact all three child actors acquit themselves well as disparate characters brought together by loneliness.
The house, dying from within with its gloomy residents and umpteen rooms, offers secret escapes. The sets are divine and detailed: every room and corridor is decorated with murals, friezes and tromp l’oeil paintings of life outdoors. Flowers, exotic birds and tangled branches cover the walls, though their colours are the blues and greens that without daylight look simply forbidding.
Like the garden outside, Mary does find a secret Eden indoors, the dressing room of Colin’s late mother. Satin and sequinned dresses hang on elegant mannequins, strings of pearls and fluffy powder puffs languish on an ornate dressing table, a central tableaux is set with framed pictures of the beautiful Grace and her equally beautiful twin sister.
The line between Mary’s imagination and the past is a porous one, and these painted walls the doors into the outside world. Unfortunately as a device it doesn’t work, with the links between imagination and reality muddled rather than magical. Likewise the ghosts of the twins, real and imagined, seem intrusive.
Overall the film feels tepid. It’s oddly haphazard and flat, rather than otherworldly and magical, its beauty skin-deep; and the plot is as thin as gossamer.
Apart from Dickon (Amir Wilson), who despite grieving for his lost father still manages to save Hector’s life, it is the women and girls who make things happen. Mary may be bossy, and Mrs Meldock brusque, but they have get up and go. Martha the maid (Dickon’s older sister) is efficient but sympathetic, and aware of exactly where she and Dickon sit in the hierarchy, within the house and in the wider world.
Meanwhile Archibald Craven is a miserable old man, projecting his own grief onto his son so the boy too cannot escape. Colin whines and frets. Mary’s father Marcus, seen in flashbacks, seems to have done nothing to help his young daughter cope with her mother’s own grief at Grace’s death.
In the end a fire cleanses Misselthwaite Manor of its dank misery, with Mary, aided by the ghostly twins, managing to get Archibald – who has finally been jerked into action and is now pacing the flaming corridors looking for his son – to safety.
The ending is suitably uplifting; there are no plagues of ants or invading Japanese knotweed here. Colin, healed by the garden and by his friends, and away from the forbidding influence of the house itself, walks towards his father. The garden blooms, the blackened, charred house is covered in scaffolding, and Archibald is newly enthused, like a middle-aged man with a new project.
The Secret Garden is available on Sky Cinema now