The Secret Garden (2020) ☆☆1/2(2.5/4): An adaptation without enough magic

Frances Hodgson Burnett’s 1911 novel “The Secret Garden” is one of many memorable books in my childhood years. At that time, I simply absorbed its story and characters without much reflection, but then the novel came to grow on me as I reflected on it from time to time, and that was the main reason why I was quite touched when I belatedly watched the 1993 movie version directed by Agnieszka Holland, who did a splendid job of filling the screen with the palpable sense of magic. I had a pretty good idea of what I was going to see, but then I found myself emotionally involved in the story and characters more than expected, and I could really believe the magical healing power of that garden on the main characters of the film.

In contrast, the latest adaptation of Burnett’s novel, which was shot in 2018 but got released in US a few weeks ago, somehow does not have enough magic. While it is competent in technical aspects, I could not help but notice many artificial elements here and there in the film, and I also do not think the considerable modification of the final part of the novel works as well as intended by Jack Thorne’s adapted screenplay.

The movie, which is set in 1947 instead of the early 20th century which is the original period background of Burnett’s novel, opens with the prologue sequence showing the small world of its plucky young heroine Mary Lennox (Dixie Egerickx) in India is suddenly turned upside down due to her parents’ sudden death. Because there is not any close family member to look after her in India, this little girl is promptly sent to England, and then she goes to a big rural manor which belongs to her mother’s brother-in-law Archibald Craven (Colin Firth).

Having been quite depressed for many years since his wife’s death, Mary’s uncle does not give a damn about taking care of his niece at all, so Mary is handed to Mrs. Medlock (Julie Walters), a stern housekeeper who will certainly not tolerate any insolence from Mary. While she has her own room somewhere in the manor, Mary is not allowed to enter certain other rooms, and that makes her quite frustrated and exasperated, though she gets some consolation from a kind housemaid named Martha (Isis Davis)

Nevertheless, the life in the manor still feels dreary and stuffy for Mary. After it was occupied by the British Army during the World War II, the manor does not get repaired or renovated at all due to the lack of any interest from Mary’s uncle, and it certainly feels spooky to Mary whenever she hears strange sounds which seem to be coming from somewhere inside the manor.

Meanwhile, Mary frequently wanders around in the wide estate surrounding the manor, and then she encounters a stray dog which she comes to befriend. Thanks to this dog, she later comes upon a certain secluded spot hidden behind a big wall, and that is how she comes to discover the garden which has been shut down from the outside since her aunt’s death. Full of many different plants and flowers which will make many conservatories look small and plain, the garden surely looks beautiful on the screen, but I must point out that, despite some ruins here and there in it, it looks rather neat although having supposedly been abandoned for around 10 years at least.

Anyway, the garden becomes a special place for not only Mary but also Dickon (Amir Wilson), a wild country boy who is Martha’s younger brother. When Mary meets him for the first time on a foggy field, he looks as if he has just returned from the Wild West, but Mary does not mind that at all because, well, she needs someone to hang around with in the garden.

And there is also Colin (Edan Hayhurst), who is the young son of Mary’s uncle and is also the one who often makes noises at night in the manor. Having been physically weak since his birth, he is quite neurotic to say the least, but he does not mind Mary’s active approach to him for friendship due to his growing loneliness, and it is not much a spoiler to tell you that Mary and Dickon eventually take Colin to the garden for bringing more life to him.

However, the garden in the film does not look that magical enough to convince me on its healing power on Colin. Usually decorated a lot with CGI images, the garden does not feel that realistic or enchanting on the whole, and that accordingly takes me back to how the garden in the 1993 version vividly evokes magic while also firmly grounded in plain realism. I could believe miracle without any doubt while watching the 1993 version, but I could only observe plot manipulations while watching the new version, which did not engage me much even when it resorts to a forced climax later in the story.

At least, the young main performers in the film are solid on the whole. While Dixie Egerickx brings some spirit to her character, Edan Hayhurst and Amir Wilson acquit themselves well, and these three young performers are supported well by several adult performers placed around them including Julie Walters, Isis Davis, and Colin Firth, who looks as shabby and desolate as required by his rather thankless supporting role.

I appreciate that the movie, which is directed Marc Munden, attempts to distinguish itself from the 1993 version and a few other notable predecessors in the past including the 1919 silent film version, but it fails to engross and enchant me, and now I miss the 1993 version more than before. The movie is not a total waste of time, but, believe me, you will have a more productive and enchanting time with the 1993 version.

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