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Movie Review: 'The Secret Garden'

Directed by: Marc Munde
Starring: Dixie Egerickx, Edan Hayhurst, Colin Firth, Julie Walters
Available on Google Play, YouTube, Amazon Prime
Rated PG, 99 minutes

An old bit of conventional moviemaking wisdom says not to work with water, animals, or children. This is somewhat dubious advice; water and animals, of course, present logistical issues and behave unpredictably, but child actors are perfectly capable of appreciating movies and understanding their parts within them. Bad performances by child actors are almost never the fault of the child, but rather that of the adults around them who underestimate their abilities. Marc Munden’s new adaptation of “The Secret Garden,” thankfully wiser than conventional wisdom, is a rare and refreshing act of faith in children. This revival of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s classic novel works equally well as a feel-good story for all ages and as an allegory for the moment when children and their parents accept each other as three-dimensional people. It feels both timeless and timely.

From left: Julie Walters, Dixie Egerickx, and Colin Firth star in “The Secret Garden.” (Courtesy photo)

At the center of the story is Mary Lennox (Dixie Egerickx, “The Little Stranger”), the young, spoiled daughter of British nationals living in India. When her parents die suddenly, Mary is sent back to Eng-land to live at the gloomy Misselthwaite Manor with her uncle Archibald Craven (Colin Firth, “The King’s Speech”), whom she has never met and whose dreary lifestyle she thoroughly detests. Never one to hold back her opinions, Mary wastes no time in making bad impressions on everyone—on her uncle, on the servants, and especially on the strict housekeeper Mrs. Medlock (Julie Walters, “Harry Potter”). But she soon discovers two big secrets about the estate. The first is a magical garden, hidden in the woods nearby, full of colorful flowers and babbling brooks and singing birds, all standing in stark contrast to the bleak moor where Misselthwaite Manor lies. The other secret is her cousin Colin (Edan Hayhurst, making his film debut), confined to his bed with an agonizing back ailment and long sheltered from life outside his bedroom.

As rich and comfortable as Mary’s lifestyle has been, these secrets reveal a deep dissatisfaction and loneliness weighing her down. As she explores the garden, finding its hiding spots and befriending a stray dog, she thinks back on the exotic landscapes of India where she once lived, on the paradise she once shared with her parents. In particular she fixates on her mother, but in her memories her mother is always distant, always unable to show love for her daughter. Meanwhile, Mary’s burgeoning friendships with Colin and the estate staff make her realize just how bratty she’s been, and even lead her to rethink how she treated her parents.

Dixie Egerickx, taking on this vivid central character with aplomb, carries the movie from start to finish. Consider the opening minutes of the movie, which focus intensely on her movements and her face as she wanders through her parents’ empty house, scavenging for food before a British officer finds her there. Before the story has even gotten under way, Marc Munden (“Utopia”) has set the tone for the movie that follows: one that belongs, unequivocally, to Mary.

The movie’s colorful visuals and curious music and nonlinear editing add to a dreamy atmosphere throughout, and still Egerickx stands out among them. True, the journey of a spoiled girl learning to act more civil has its uninspiring moments—in one scene, by way of showing how she is becoming less demanding, she announces to a maid that she will get dressed all by herself, thus clearing an extraordinarily low bar—but even at her most petulant, Egerickx captures the precocious way smart children put on sophisticated airs. Her emotions are clear but not overdrawn, her speech direct but not plain. Most of all, Egerickx’s Mary is recognizable.

Book-to-film adaptation purists, especially those who have enjoyed previous adaptations of “The Secret Garden,” may find certain elements less recognizable, like the historical setting, which replaces the original early-1900s setting with 1947. By placing the death of Mary’s parents in the context of Indian independence and Misselthwaite Manor’s dreariness in the wake of World War II, the movie subtly broadens the characters’ grief, making their personal struggles feel instructive for audiences reeling from massive political crises. Coming in the midst of 2020’s unceasing upheavals, “The Secret Garden” feels charming and hopeful, but unafraid to look these troubles in the eye.

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Danny Eisenberg grew up in Harvard and has been reviewing movies for the Harvard Press since 2010. He lives and works in Denver, Colorado.

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