Written by: Hannah Tran | August 5th, 2020
The Secret Garden (Marc Munden, 2020) 3 out of 4 stars.
Marc Munden’s The Secret Garden, based on the classic tale about a young British girl who is sent to live in her uncle’s mansion after the death of her parents and then discovers a secret garden on his estate, could possibly just be yet another indistinct adaptation of a literary work in a time oversaturated with movies trying to reinvent something from the past. So, though it is perhaps only because I was previously unfamiliar with the story, I was surprised to find myself swept away by its magical storytelling, sweet characters and touching message. While it may feel semi-familiar, it uses a tried-and-true formula enhanced by distinctive visual and technical flourishes that make it a lively and fulfilling experience the whole family can enjoy.
It takes quite a while to understand where exactly The Secret Garden is taking you. The film, itself, takes its time moving into the central plot of the narrative and exploring the possible tonal approaches it can use to tell that plot. Many of the early scenes feel somewhat removed from each other and from the latter portion of the film, but once its principal narrative is set in motion, the filmmaking begins to feel much more natural and cohesive, making for an increasingly engaging experience.
The film’s tight handle on its characters helps this process immensely. The trio of young actors that comprise the film’s core – Dixie Egerickx (Summerland), Edan Hayhurst and Amir Wilson – surprise with fresh charisma and undeniable chemistry that drive forward their respective transformations. If only the screenplay were willing to put an ounce of the time and care it does into its young characters into some of its older ones. Colin Firth (The King’s Speech), the film’s biggest star, could have been better incorporated into the story, for example. While early on his character’s overarching trait is his absence, his eventual presence in the narrative feels weakly integrated. By the time he is able to connect with the characters he is meant to, it feels as if we don’t know him well enough for his ultimate change of heart to feel as powerful as it could.
That being said, the story’s dedication to understanding the inner struggles of its young characters almost makes up for this. The film’s sense of magic, made possible by its use of visual effects, fully embodies the young minds of its protagonists. Its playfulness with elements of fantasy and the boundaries of a child’s imagination are creative and often beautiful, although they do feel heavily used and grow somewhat tiresome by the movie’s conclusion. The Secret Garden may not feel particularly unique or new, but its thoughtful retelling of a classic tale’s loving message feels just as timely as ever. And given a chance, with its enchanting visual style, its captivating scenery and heartwarming messages, it may just grow on you.