Review by Sean Boelman
Even though Frances Hodgson Burnett’s classic children’s book has been adapted to the screen plenty before (and has even been done well a few of those times), the timeless tale of The Secret Garden keeps getting adapted by filmmakers. The newest version, from British television director Marc Munden, may not be the most faithful, but it captures the spirit of the material well.
The movie follows an orphan girl who, after being taken in by her wealthy but distant uncle, discovers a locked and magical garden in his estate. However, in an unexpected twist, this version cares very little about the eponymous garden. It’s a much more grounded take on a typically fantastical story.
What stands out most about this adaptation is the fact that it is surprisingly unsentimental. The Secret Garden has always been notable for dealing with difficult subject matter like grief in a way that is approachable for children. Jack Thorne’s script takes a very understated approach, dealing more in the feelings of the characters than the melodramatic situations in which they find themselves.
At less than an hour and forty minutes, the film has a hard time of condensing so many pages into a single feature-length movie. It’s an abridged version of the narrative, with some significant aspects taken out and others introduced so that the nature of the conflict remains relatively similar. Devotees may be frustrated by the drastic changes made, but the message and essence are much the same.
Perhaps the most significant things lost in the shuffle, though, are the arcs of the supporting characters, especially the protagonist’s guardian. Most of the character’s growth in this film is confined to two or three scenes, which is a huge waste of potential, especially given the fact that Colin Firth’s wonderful performance is underused (his second in a movie based on this material, interestingly enough).
Dixie Egerickx plays the main character in the film, and she brings a lot of emotion to the character, making the more subtle approach to the story work quite well. In fact, due to the changes made to the material by the script, her performance is the keystone upon which the entire movie rests. Along with Firth, Julie Walters makes an appearance in the supporting cast, though she is also more or less forgettable.
The film also looks quite good for the most part. Apart from some lackluster CGI for augmentation's sake, the visuals are very immersive. Munden kept this as a period piece, and does an excellent job of establishing the time, particularly in the gritty war sequences in the introduction of the movie.
The Secret Garden may not be the best film version of this story, but it’s a well-made one all-around. Hopefully this will introduce a new generation to the magic of the wonderful source material.
The Secret Garden hits VOD on August 7.