We gave it a C+
When I was in grade school, a teacher read to us from Frances Hodgson Burnett’s children’s classic The Secret Garden (which was first published in 1911). Thirty years later, I still remember that garden — a beautiful, spooky, unreal place, as enchanting a Freudian landscape, in its way, as Lewis Carroll’s Wonderland. Burnett told the story of a bitterly unhappy orphan girl in late-19th-century England who discovers a mysterious, walled-in sanctuary of flowers and shrubs on the grounds of her uncle’s mansion. The garden, which begins to bloom as the story goes on, is lush and inviting yet haunted by death: a ghostly Victorian Eden. At one point, director David Lynch (Blue Velvet, Twin Peaks) planned to film the book, and its mixture of innocence and gothic creepiness would have been perfect for him. Now, the Polish-born Agnieszka Holland (Europa, Europa; Olivier, Olivier) has done the job, with Francis Ford Coppola serving as executive producer.
Photographed in elegant dark tones, Holland’s version of The Secret Garden remains true to the evocative moodiness of Burnett’s novel. Wandering through the mazelike hallways of Misselthwaite Manor, little Mary (Kate Maberly), who has petulant words for everyone she sees, stumbles into the looming draped bedroom of Colin (Heydon Prowse), her sickly cousin, who never ventures out of his cryptlike chamber. Pale and unable to walk, Colin is as hostile and self-pitying as Mary is — both have grown up without adults to nurture them — but inside the garden their friendship blossoms. Burnett’s somber fairy tale has a haunting contemporary resonance; it’s about children who have lost their inner child. Holland coaxes delicate performances from her young actors (Prowse is especially good), yet what’s missing from the film almost entirely is the book’s aura of spectral enchantment, the sense that the overgrown garden literally has a life of its own. The movie is earnest, heartfelt, and, for all its lavishness, rather plodding. Maybe that’s because the quality in Holland’s direction that has always seemed least accomplished — her feel for atmosphere — is the one this story needed most. In The Secret Garden, she has given us the fable without the dream. C+