VOD film review: The Secret Garden
Matthew Turner | On 23, Oct 2020
Director: Marc Munden
Cast: Dixie Egerickx, Colin Firth, Julie Walters, Edan Hayhurst, Amir Wilson, Isis Davis
Watch The Secret Garden online in the UK: Sky Cinema / NOW / Apple TV (iTunes) / Prime Video (Buy/Rent) / TalkTalk TV / Virgin Movies / Rakuten TV / Google Play / Sky Store / CHILI
Directed by Marc Munden, this is the fourth big screen adaptation of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s classic children’s story, which was first published in 1911. (The first film followed just eight years later, but it’s now thought to be lost.) This new version is decently acted and entirely watchable, but it’s let down by a surfeit of poor quality CGI and a questionable story decision.
Set in 1947, the film begins in Partition-era British India, where young Mary Lennox (Dixie Egerickx, The Little Stranger) has lost both her parents to an outbreak of cholera. After being found alone in her house by British soldiers, she’s sent to foggy Yorkshire to live with her uncle, Lord Craven (Colin Firth), in Misselthwaite Manor.
However, her new living arrangements are far from ideal: Craven is grumpy and reclusive, housekeeper Mrs Medlock (Julie Walters) is as strict as she is snappy and, to her horror, no-nonsense maid Martha (Isis Davis) is nothing like the servant she had back in India. However, things look up when Mary befriends Martha’s younger brother Dickon (Amir Wilson) and the pair find a secret, magical garden on the grounds of the manor. And when Mary discovers her sickly cousin Colin (Edan Hayhurst) stashed away and bedridden in another of the manor’s rooms, she starts to wonder if the garden’s restorative powers might be just what he needs.
Dixie Egerickx’s performance is comfortably the film’s strongest element – it’s nicely rounded enough that she’s not immediately all that likeable, but she grows on you as she begins to flower under the influence of both the garden and her new friendships. Dickon is a more simplistic character by contrast, but Wilson is equally good, generating sweet and charming chemistry with Egerickx. Hayhurst also does a decent job of being insufferable at first, but gradually softening due to Mary’s perseverance, perfectly illustrating the film’s main theme about the restorative power of kindness.
The adult actors fare slightly less well. Walters, in particular, is criminally under-used as Mrs Medlock – why cast National Treasure Julie Walters and then give her so little to say or do? As for Firth, he seems like he’s just going through the motions and his supposedly emotional moments feel forced as a result. Davis makes a strong impression in her first scene, but her character, like Walters, is sorely under-used thereafter.
The film’s biggest problem is its over-reliance on some decidedly sub-standard CGI effects. Indeed, there’s so much CGI work in the garden sequences that it starts to feel like clutter – even the lighting doesn’t look real. Admittedly, that’s a deliberate choice meant to heighten the whole magical aspect, but it backfires, because there’s just too much of it.
There are other CGI-related crimes too, not least a horrific-looking robin that plays a key part in the story and looks like it’s high on drugs, as well as a handful of gratuitous ghosts (the nice kind, not the Bly Manor kind) who prove a constant distraction by hanging around in the background of scenes.
Finally, it’s telling that the film doesn’t have enough faith in its own story to deliver the required rush of emotion. Instead, it throws in a contrived and clichéd “exciting” climax that’s not in the book or any of the previous adaptations. One senses Burnett would not have approved.
The Secret Garden is available on Sky Cinema. Don’t have Sky? You can also stream it on NOW, as part of an £11.99 NOW Cinema Membership subscription.