Starring Colin Firth, Julie Walters, Dixie Egerickx, Edan Hayhurst, Amir Wilson. Directed by Marc Munden.
David Heyman has set about becoming his own kind of production auteur. While he’s dabbled in other films, the producer’s studio Heyday Film is perhaps best known as the home of Harry Potter — the studio has produced all eight films and now the Fantastic Beasts films also. Heyman has also produced a number of other films aimed at a child audience: The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, Is Anybody There?, and both Paddington films, to great acclaim, while also earning a triple bill of Best Picture nominations for producing Gravity, Marriage Story and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.
Now comes The Secret Garden the latest adaptation of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s beloved children’s novel. Perhaps best known for its 1993 production directed by Agnieszka Holland and produced by Francis Ford Coppola. This new version comes courtesy of writer Jack Thorne and director Marc Munden.
The story remains the same: in 1947, orphan Mary is sent to live with her uncle on a mysterious estate with a secret, special garden.
The film gets the casting very right. While Dixie Egerickx is the right mix of stubborn pain with an inquisitive mind, she also manages to bring a little nuance to the role of an orphan missing her family, and holding onto a negative memory of her mother. But the film’s ace is the casting of Julie Walters (in what may be her final film role) as Mrs. Medlock. It’s too obvious to say that she is well cast as a stern authority figure, but even so, she really is. While Colin Firth brings a humanity to the Lord Craven role that could otherwise turn into farce.
The garden itself is well realised with enough visual effects to make it truly magical, but also the right amount of actual set that can convince it exists in the real world, you feel as if the garden exists, though the film acts coy about showing a truly magical experience. It’s a much more low-fi affair than the trailers would have you believe. Think more A Monster Calls than Harry Potter it’s that sort of magical realism on screen.
If there’s a flaw it’s that the film doesn’t ever feel as if there are stakes, the direction is at times quite flashy – if overly reverential to the latter Potter movies from David Yates, but moments where magic needs to take over it never really does, and we never really get a sense of who the characters are.
That said, the themes of forgiveness, rebirth and growing are all timeless and work to the film’s advantage, it grows with the film and for young audiences will bring the novel to them in a way that a film from 1993 might not be so appealing. There are also a few dangling plot threads that feel like the film wasn’t confident enough to really examine – the British Raj in India, the spectre of racism in the UK, the state of medicine and disability, feminism and more all seem to be addressed but never enough for it to seem more like something left open for later.
In all this is a perfectly fine film for children and adults alike that will probably fill the void of a family film coming out this winter and will no doubt grow as a firm favourite among those with a more British leaning in their desires. It could have been so much more though.