The Secret Garden

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The world may not need yet another version of The Secret Garden, but here’s one anyway. The latest adaptation of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s children’s story is in a crowded field and to cut through has to compete with two very respectable adaptations, the much lauded one from 1993 directed by Agnieszka Holland and the one from 1949 starring cute child star Margaret O’Brien.

There are plenty of others, going as far back as 1919, and what all have in common is the same roster of character names – one sign of something achieving classic status is that no one dicks about with the names as written on the page. See Harry Potter, Elizabeth Bennet and Ebenezer Scrooge.

Here it’s Dixie Egerickx playing Mary, the orphan child sent home from the India of the Raj to be brought up by her dead mother’s sister, only to find that her aunt is dead, her uncle has become a recluse, the house hangs in a state of permanent mourning and the once-fabulous garden, the aunt’s pride and joy, is now neglected and kept under lock and key.

Mary is a horrible spoiled brat shocked to find she’s not being waited on hand and foot, as she’s been used to out in India. Neither the iron-hard housekeeper Mrs Medlock (Julie Walters), nor the kindly but no-nonsense maid Martha (Isis Davis) is interested in indulging her.

And so, thrown onto her own resources, Mary starts to explore her surroundings, eventually discovering the locked garden, after having befriended a smart dog and a wild lad called Dickon (Amir Wilson) – a Heathcliff in waiting. And then she discovers that the house has a secret, a sickly child called Colin (Edan Hayhurst), the son her aunt gave birth to before dying from the exertion. Colin’s level of snotty entitlement puts Mary’s in the shade. But she’s already shrugging off her colonial carapace, and Colin will soon follow suit, regaining his health as he does so.

Mary, Uncle Archibald and Colin
Mary, Uncle Archibald and Mrs Medlock

Watch any of the other versions and Mary, Dickon, Martha, Mrs Medlock, Colin and the dog are all there, as is Mary’s distant uncle Archibald (Colin Firth, doing another of his distracted uncle turns), and the story here also sticks close to the original. Quite why Jack Thorne was drafted in to adapt the screenplay is a bit of a mystery, since his specialty is modern manners and language (see the TV series Skins) and this is set in the late 1940s, after the Partition of India and Pakistan. There are other mysteries too – why is the acting of the kids so variable? Edan Hayhurst, as the bedbound Colin, is the best of the bunch, and manages to squeeze a lot of sympathy out of a character who is, initially at least, fairly vile.

There is another standard problem with British children’s movies – the well spoken, prissy, hoity-toitiness of the kids – and it makes liking the brats who inhabit The Secret Garden an uphill struggle. In their defence, these kids are meant to be horrible, that’s part of the arc of the story – rebirth, renewal, improvement, the shedding of class snobbery.

But no matter how much they shed of their old manner, neither Mary nor Colin abandon the master/servant attitude they have to Dickon – his flat Northern working class vowels contrasting with their round middle/upper-class ones, his darker skin against their pale complexions. Is this Jack Thorne adding his own spin to Burnett’s story? Sure these kids change, he’s telling us, but the old prejudices linger?

Cavilling to one side, there is a big visual plus in the garden itself, a gloriously romantic place full of dappled sunlight, crammed with the sort of plants that Victorian botanists once scoured the world for. Like some meditative therapy tape, the garden is also awash with lovely sounds. Insects chirrup and birds sing, helping to create a garden soundscape that’s genuinely lovely. So lovely, in fact, that Dario Marianelli’s music really isn’t necessary in these bits, and certainly not at this volume.

Lovely in many ways, odd in others, lacking urgency but undeniably conjuring a mood, it’s an adaptation that bizarrely seems to have hobbled itself on its way onto the screens. The older versions can sleep easy.

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© Steve Morrissey 2021

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