Adapting a classic novel is always a specific challenge, as the audience watching typically will know the basic narrative beats, and your goal is to present the tale in a new or interesting way that will reflect a new aspect of the story uniquely. In the case of a work like Frances Hodgson Burnett’s 1911 classic the Secret Garden, you are also adding to a larger collection of other interpretations, including three other feature films, several television mini-series and a Broadway musical. There are few works, short of Shakespeare’s plays, that have been revisited as much. Thus you have to have something special to stand out against a busy parade of previous interpretations.
Luckily for this new version, directed by Marc Munden from a script by long-time collaborator Jack Thorne, there is a secret weapon named Dixie Egerickx. Egerickx, a relative unknown who was 12 when the film was shot two years ago, plays the central character of Mary Lennox with such mature gravitas that it elevates pretty much everything around her. Secret Garden is notoriously tricky and weighty material for young actors, and Munden doesn’t spare his young cast from the real meat of the story. Fortunately for him and the audience, his central cast are all game for the task, but Egerickx stands head and shoulders above not only the other younger actors in the cast, but several of her veteran scene partners. She is a revelation, and elevates this to potentially the new definitive film of the story.
The film pushes the story slightly into the future from its original setting, starting in 1947 during the volatile partition of British India into Pakistan and India. This provides a slightly new context for the tale; after two World Wars, and the crumbling of British Empire, we are given a child’s perspective of an uncertain world that is bumping against modernity. Our primary guide through this is Mary, daughter of British dignitaries in India who both died of cholera; in the chaos of the partition, Mary survives for an unstated amount of time abandoned in the ruins of her stately home.
This bleak opening highlights one of the key aims of this adaptation: it lingers in the pain. Mary is immediately shown as a child who has been forced to move towards adulthood faster than planned, still retelling Indian myths to no one and longing for play time with her parents. Suddenly an orphan, she is shipped off to her reclusive uncle Craven, played with broken hauntedness by Colin Firth, wandering through the creepy halls of his crumbling estate. Misselthwaite in fact plays a rather menacing setting for the midst of her mourning. As she sinks deeper into the certainty that they are gone, Mary is forced to confront questions of if her parents ever cared for her at all.
This is where Egerickx’s considerable talent shines. Mary is a complicated character, a traumatized who must be simultaneously sympathetic due to her trauma but also carrying around herself a hard shell. When Mary stomps her foot and demands to be treated the way she was back in India, she comes across as legitimately incensed. But she is also scared and overwhelmed and unthinkably sad. Egerickx plays all of this convincingly, as she does her rejuvenation. She earns the arc Mary has by portraying the rises and falls naturally.
It helps that Mary is in every scene of the film, so Egerickx’s confidence as an actress guides the audience through. The rest of the cast plays against her well, including a distant and unknowable Firth, Julie Walters as the oppressive Mrs. Wedlock and Isis Davis as infinitely patient maid Martha. But there is a certain period stateliness that informs the performance of many of the adults, as if they are playing things the way they should. That Egerickx is so emotionally raw is all the more affecting.
Eventually Mary does discover the garden, a labor of passion for her mother and aunt, Craven’s late wife. The introduction of the garden itself, which is depicted as a magical shifting landscape of nearly alien flora, pushes the narrative into one of regrowth and redemption. Mary befriends Martha’s younger brother Dickson (Amir Wilson) and her neglected and sickly cousin Colin (Edan Hayhurst), the three of them exploring the magical forest of a garden. All of them hint at a form of brokenness they’ve suffered, but through their friendship shows signs of growing and moving forward. The propulsion is less plot-centric and more about the core emotional journey of its central cast, but the interaction between the three young actors keeps the action grounded. (It also helps that the movie clocks in at a lean 100 minutes.)
As a director, Munden mostly trusts his actors and script to carry the action for him, primarily using his lens as a means to accentuate the size of the world from a children’s perspective. As Mary wanders the halls of Misselthwaite, the manor feels both massive and oppressive; similarly the garden is a seemingly endless place that overwhelms and wows its younger visitors. A scene where Mary is climbing a tree that magically shifts to meet where her feet land depicts both the danger and excitement of climbing upward and captures a child’s perspective of the world with clarity and sympathy. The strangeness of Secret Garden, and why it has lasted through so many different interpretations, lies in how honestly it taps into the inherent fear and sadness that plays into being a child and how that melds with wonder in ways we often forget over time.
The combination of Munden’s evocative camera work and Egerickx’s masterful acting taps into something elemental and true about what it is to be a child in an upset, often overbearing world. The magic of the garden is that it seems to be the place where children are allowed to feel themselves and feel safe, away from adults that have already been ground down to ghost of their former self. It is alive; by comparison, Misselthwaite is already dead.
Without getting into spoilers, the conclusion of the film does drastically change the final act of the film. A dramatic climax highlights the underlying need for not just the residents of the oppressive Misselthwaite Manor, but for the whole of Britain in the wake of the world changing beneath their feet, to reconsider the past with a critical eye. The film demands a hard reflection, not to deny it or forget it, but to reckon with it honestly. By placing this demand within the framework of the magic and terror of being a child, emphasizing how the world can seem so wide and unknowable. There is an emotional honesty that will appeal to both adults and children alike, especially thanks to such a powerhouse performance at the center.
The Secret Garden is available now from STXfilms as a premium video on demand rental.