When I was in college, my roommate asked if his girlfriend could crash the movie night we regularly had with our buddies. I had no objections. She insisted on bringing the movie, though, and it ended up being Hallmark Hall of Fame's production of The Secret Garden. I'd never been so bored in all my life (nor had my pals). It was stuffy and stodgy, reminding me of Masterpiece Theater. I warmed up to the story a few years later with Agnieszka Holland's livelier 1993 theatrical version. The new iteration from director Marc Munden and Harry Potter/Paddington producer David Heyman also brought some joy. Unlike the version I first saw in college, it satisfactorily creates a sense of wonder.
Dixie Egerickx (Summerland) stars as Mary Lennox, an orphaned girl sent to live with her uncle, Lord Archibald Craven (Colin Firth). To say he's strict would be an understatement; she's not allowed to do much more than breathe. Of course, Mary ignores most of his rules, eventually making her way out back, where a stray dog guides her to a magical hidden garden. She later brings her sickly cousin Colin (Edan Hayhurst) and new friend Dickon (Amir Wilson) to it, as well. The garden, as you may know, holds healing properties.
Does the world need another version of The Secret Garden after the 1919 silent version, the 1949 Margaret O'Brien version, the '87 Hallmark version, and Holland's '93 version? Probably not. It isn't as though the story hasn't been told onscreen before. I can't even say this one brings anything particularly new to the table. It's a more or less faithful adaptation of Frances Hodgson Burnett's novel, executed well yet hardly revolutionary.
Then again, the most recent of those previous versions was still twenty-seven years ago, meaning it's considered “old” by young audiences. Having a version for the current generation, especially when made as nicely as this one is, can't reasonably be called a bad thing. And maybe being able to bring modern special effects to the tale was part of the desire to revisit the story. Happily, the movie doesn't turn the garden into a CGI playground. It keeps the location feeling the right amount of magical without becoming preposterous. Leaves on trees change color as the wind blows and some flowers bloom to excessive size, but this isn't a case where something has been CGI'ed to death. Mary and friends feel as though they're rollicking around an actual outdoor locale – just one that's a little more heightened than anyplace real.
The Secret Garden additionally benefits from good performances. Daisy Egerickx is a natural young actress, capable of projecting intelligence and emotion without falling into the cutesy, look-at-me quality that often mars the work of child actors. She's very grounded and relatable as Mary. Colin Firth is typically reliable as Lord Craven, providing the character with an appropriate bluster in the early scenes and a necessary vulnerability later on. The man is incapable of giving an uninteresting performance, and he certainly doesn't here.
On all technical levels, The Secret Garden looks and sounds great. It's got beautiful cinematography, a lush musical score, and inventive production design. (The wallpaper in Lord Craven's mansion is fascinating.) The picture manages to be fun without sacrificing the meaning inherent in Burnett's book. Today's kids are used to manic, something-happening-every-second movies. Will they respond to one like this that takes its time with storytelling and encourages thought regarding the plot's themes? Hopefully they will. The Secret Garden 2020 edition is heartwarming and entertaining, and I liked it a lot.
out of four
The Secret Garden is rated PG for thematic elements and some mild peril. The running time is 1 hour and 39 minutes.