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The Secret Garden (2020) Review

Mary Lennox (Dixie Egerickx) is orphaned in India and shipped off back to her uncle (Colin Firth) at Misselthwaite Manor. There she befriends local boy Dickon (Amir Wilson), meets her sickly cousin Colin (Edan Hayhurst), and finds the key to a locked garden that changes everything.

Frances Hodgson Burnett’s classic story of alienation, anger, and illness gets a fresh adaptation from Utopia director Marc Munden. In some ways, it’s a story perfect for 2020 because it sees a group of traumatized people who don’t get out much find solace in gardening and fresh air. But in padding out the original story, this version sometimes prioritizes spectacle over the book’s clear focus on wounded kids finding a new lease of life, and to that extent, it doesn’t always work as well as previous takes.

Mary Lennox (Dixie Egerickx) is orphaned in India in 1947 and brought to live with her uncle Archibald Craven (Colin Firth) at Misselthwaite Manor in Yorkshire. There the spoiled, angry girl finds a deeply dysfunctional household: Craven is grief-stricken and barely functional; his housekeeper Mrs. Medlock (Julie Walters) is standoffish, and distant shrieks at night suggest that there’s someone else there. Eventually, Mary discovers her unwell cousin Colin (Edan Hayhurst) and the key to a neglected corner of the gardens. At the behest of cheerful local kid Dickon (His Dark Materials’ Amir Wilson), Mary explores the garden and gradually forms a bickering bond with her cousin.

Munden and his team gild this secret garden to an impossible degree, turning it into an outrageous fantasy land of exotic plants and beasts that could never simply be closed up. It’s gorgeous and colorful, an instant contrast to the bleached post-War reality in all its ashy tones, but it’s a magical realist fantasy that’s a world away from the earthbound, growing magic of the book. This take has its head in the clouds but not always its feet on the ground, and sometimes you miss that practical Yorkshire heft.

The temptation to embroider the story has generally mixed results. The early scenes, of a forlorn Mary, abandoned and fending for herself in India, give some insight into her awful behavior later, and the faded grandeur of this Misselthwaite Manor is glorious. But a more elaborate backstory for Lord Craven feels unnecessary, and it seems a shame to hire Julie Walters and give her this little to do as Mrs. Medford. At least the younger cast is on point: Egerickx is a more sympathetic Mary than some but still awkward and snappish, Hayhurst is pitch-perfect and Wilson is likable in an underwritten role. The film is best when it focuses on them. Sometimes, all you really want from a film is a breath of fresh air and some kids building a better world for themselves, and anything else is just a distraction.

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