Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (October 15, 2020)
Back in 1911, Frances Hodgson Burnett wrote The Secret Garden. It received its initial adaptation as a 1919 movie, and 100 years later, 2020’s The Secret Garden brings what it appears to be at least its eighth rendition.
Unlike the original novel, the 2020 Garden takes place in 1947. 10-year-old Mary Lennox (Dixie Egerickx) grows up in India as the pampered child of well-off parents.
Tragedy strikes when cholera kills the rest of Mary’s family, and the orphaned girl finds herself sent to England to live with her Uncle Archibald Craven (Colin Firth) on his Yorkshire estate. Archibald lives with his housekeeper Mrs. Medlock (Julie Walters) and sickly son Colin (Edan Hayhurst).
At first, Mary struggles to adapt, but eventually she locates exciting mysteries on the grounds. Along with Colin and friend Dickon (Amir Wilson), they discover a secret garden that boasts wonders.
Given all the adaptations of <>Garden over the last century, clearly movie/TV producers view it as something of an evergreen. I admit I knew nothing of the tale until I watched the 2020 version – heck, to me, “Secret Garden” is just a Springsteen song popularized by Jerry Maguire.
Though the actual story may be new to me, Garden tends to feel familiar, as we’ve seen plenty of tales along these lines. For instance, the Narnia books come with semi-equivalent narratives, albeit on a grander scale.
This sense of familiarity – aided by the multiple prior adaptations - doesn’t doom Garden, but it does mean this version needs to find something fresh to say with the material. It doesn’t.
Whatever deeper themes of grief and revival exist in the source, they get little play here. The movie nods in the direction of various notions, but these don’t receive much real exploration.
Instead, we mainly watch Mary as she slowly comes out of her funk and embraces the world around her. Good for her, but the manner in which Garden depicts her journey seems sluggish and fairly dull.
The actors do their best, and I admire young Egerickx’s willingness to play Mary as surly and unliikable. Too many juvenile actors would wheedle some inappropriate sunniness out of the role, but Egerickx gives Mary a nice sense of realism, and her path toward happiness feels believable.
Unfortunately, that path simply never becomes especially engaging. The adventures of the kids remain generally blah, and the movie’s attempts at magic don’t impact the viewer in a real way.
Garden wants to balance youthful magic with more adult themes, but it fails to do so in a convincing manner. It never quite commits in either direction, so it tends to feel tentative and underwhelming.
Garden does look lovely, and it remains professional at all times. As noted, the performances work fine, and the flick comes with definite potential.
However, it just never quite capitalizes on all these positives. Oddly inert and flat, Garden lacks the emotion and impact it needs.