Garden guards its timeless secrets

GENERATIONS of children have been entranced by the story of The Secret Garden, as told by the British-American novelist Frances Hodgson Burnett more than a century ago.

But as we in the UK await the delayed release of a new film version starring Colin Firth and Julie Walters, it might well be a good time to revisit the 1993 version of the movie – another all-star offering telling the timeless story of an orphaned girl sent to live in a gloomy, forbidding estate in Yorkshire.

child explores secret garden

In the new retelling, Dixie Egerickx plays Mary Lennox, the spoilt daughter of neglectful parents orphaned in India – although the action has been moved forward from the early years of the century to 1947.

But as the 2020 version goes on release in America ahead of its debut here, the 1993 offering has Kate Maberly in the starring role as the disgruntled Mary, left to roam the empty corridors of Misselthwaite Manor, where her reclusive uncle has never recovered from his wife’s untimely death.

children explore secret garden

The critics generally loved the 90s version, praising it for honouring its classic source material with a “well-acted, beautifully filmed adaptation that doesn’t shy from its story’s darker themes”.

After her long sea journey the prickly, repressed Mary is met with a mixture of disdain and disapproval by Mrs Medlock (Maggie Smith), who manages the manor in the absence of her uncle, Lord Archibald Craven (John Lynch), who seems to be perpetually roaming the world in an attempt to forget the heartbreaking death of his young bride.

There is little for the petulant and unhappy 10-year-old to do but explore and she soon begins to stumble on some of the secrets of Misselthwaite Manor, allowing her to slowly discover for the first time in her life what true friendship means.

Like all great stories for children, the powerful truths which lurk beneath the surface of the narrative allows younger audiences to learn something about the nature of life, and Agnieszka Holland’s version is bolstered by an extraordinary award-winning musical score by the Polish composer Zbigniew Preisner.

children explore secret garden

To some modern eyes the 1993 version may feel a little slow and dated, notable for its lack of special effects. But the late Roger Ebert, the Pullitzer Prize winning film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times, it was a work of “beauty, poetry and deep mystery, and watching it is like entering for a time into a closed world where one’s destiny may be discovered”.

American critics seem divided about how well the 2020 film shapes up in comparison, though its credentials are second to none.

This time Colin Firth plays the heartsore uncle, haunted by grief and forcing his son to lead the life of an invalid because of his misguided sense of overprotectiveness. With little dialogue and only a handful of scenes, Firth still manages to convey the profound nature of the uncle’s grief, we hear.

But if the New York Tiimes found this version charming and some audiences thought it “magical”, other critics have worried that in its visual overkill it lacks the “atmospheric poetry” of its predecessor, with director Marc Munden and scriptwriter Jack Thorne somehow sapping the story of its magic by over-reliance on CGI.

child explores secret garden

British audiences get to find out for themselves in October, so in the meantime, why not step back in time to an unsung gem from the year everyone remembers for Jurassic Park?

This is a tale about grief, and how damaged wounded individuals can manage to claw their way beack to life with the right tending and care. It was something Frances Hodgson Burnett knew about only too well: she had seen her elder son die of consumption 20 years before she wrote the book, and she sank into a deep depression as a result.

It was not to be greatly lauded during her lifetime – it was only later that it began to be appreciated as a classic of children’s literature and increasingly cited as one of the best and best-loved children’s books of the 20th century.

Writing for Entertainment Weekly, Maureen Lee Lenker suggests the new version misses the point: “Like the garden at its heart, The Secret Garden has always found its beauty in its quietude, a small story of hearts broken and healed through nature, attentive care, and true connection. But this adaptation doesn’t understand that, instead drowning the film in showy set pieces and magical realism rather than understanding the inherent magic in all things. They should’ve never underestimated the peace that can be found in simplicity and quiet.”

Right or wrong, there could hardly be a better reason for revisiting the Agnieszka Holland version – or even re-reading the original book. That way, we will all be better prepared to judge for ourselves if the latest version really makes the grade when it finally reaches these shores.