1947: India and Pakiston are separating. It is a time of violence and unrest. When little Mary (Dixie Egerickx) is left alone in a big house, she remains undiscovered for quite some time. When no parents reappear to claim her, she is sent to England, to live with an uncle she’s never met. Housekeeper Mrs Medlock (Julie Walters) warns that when,or indeed if, her uncle should greet her, she’d better not stare. That’s as warm a welcome as she’s likely to get.
The staff, even sweet Martha (Isis Davis), think her a spoiled brat, and even if it’s true, she can’t help how she’s been raised, and she’s certainly not being corrected here. And she is, after all, a young orphaned girl living in a cold stranger’s house with no one and nothing that’s familiar or kind. Perhaps in 1911 (when the book was first published) it was acceptable to be both judgmental AND neglectful of small children who’ve done nothing wrong except exist, and to ignore the childhood trauma they’ve so recently survived. Our understanding and common sense today is a lot more sympathetic, but the movie is careful not to show it, staying true to its source material. Mary is therefore so lonely in this new place that she makes friends with a mangy dog named Jemima even though she’s clearly afraid of her. But in the complete absence of other children (or so she thinks), a dog will do.
Likely you know the rest. It’s a goddamn classic. Mary finds a beautiful secret garden, makes some friends, they change each other’s lives, and she wins the heart of her reclusive, anxious uncle Archibald (Colin Firth).
My sisters and I loved the 1993 version of the film and I wondered if that would be a hindrance to my enjoying this one. I can’t say for sure of course, whether I’ve managed to be unbiased or not, but I never quite felt this film justified its existence. Hopefully it allows a new generation of kids to discover the book, and perhaps the universe simply needs to reboot stories like this periodically. It’s a criminal under-use of both Colin Firth and Julie Walters, but that’s just being true to the story. Are the kids cute? Sure they are, and not bad actors either, and it’s not a bad move introducing even just a bit of colour to the cast. Hello, 21st Century.
It’s not a bad adaptation, really, I can’ t say anything negative about it. I was, however, surprised to find this particular garden to be more magic than secret – the film uses CGI pretty liberally to make that garden come alive. I didn’t remember “my” movie being like that, but when I took a quick look at the trailer, it in fact did have the early 90s version of CG, I’d just misremembered. It makes sense – if you had a magic garden, you’d be best to keep it secret. Well done, Frances Hodgson Burnett. Cheers, girl. But that’s the trouble with nostalgia, isn’t it? We confuse our memories with emotion, and it ends up infused with a warm glow it may not technically deserve. The real thing never quite matches up with the way we remember it, so new iterations don’t stand a chance.
I also felt this story deserved/needed updating if we were going to be bothered with it once again. It took me a minute but eventually realized it WAS updated – though rather trivially. Burnett published the novel in 1911; Mary was said to be living at the turn of the century. This movie moves the story forward – to 1947, for no real reason, except maybe they couldn’t procure a wheel chair that was old-timey enough? But what a waste: kids today can’t relate to estranged, wealthy, hunchbacked uncles, or hiding “crippled” children away in the attic and denying their existence, or de-colonizing “British India,” or the proper way for a child to address a servant. This movie fails to add anything new to the conversation; with at least 11 previous adaptions across all platforms, we hardly needed another.Harping on a little less about a beloved skipping rope hardly qualifies as a fresh interpretation. Heck, this isn’t even the first time Colin Firth’s been in a Secret Garden film! Maybe these incessant, unoriginal reboots need to make like Mary’s parents and die in an epidemic already. Oddly, that’s the only part of the material that still has relevance today, and I think if one thing has united we 7 billion people, it’s that we’re not terribly fond of them. Let’s find a vaccine for COVID-19 and then transition directly to finding one to inoculate against horrible retreads and a perverse lack of imagination.