As the company did with “The Black Stallion” 14 years ago, American Zoetrope has, in “The Secret Garden,” produced another exquisite children’s classic. Executed to near perfection in all artistic departments, this superior adaptation of the perennial favorite novel will find its core public among girls , but should prove satisfying enough to a range of audiences to make it a solid performer for Warner Bros.’ family entertainment banner.
Although she has worked in English before, this marks a significant stride into the mainstream for Polish-born director Agnieszka Holland after the acclaim for her most recent pics, “Europa, Europa” and “Olivier, Olivier.” Impressively, however, there is no hint of compromise or pandering to a wide market, as the film betrays a rigorous, sophisticated sensibility that will encourage viewers to meet it on its own level.
Best known of late as a Broadway musical, “The Secret Garden” has been a success ever since English-American author Frances Hodgson Burnett wrote it in 1911. A solid, darkly Gothic, psychologically slanted film version starring Margaret O’Brien was made by MGM in 1949, and the BBC and Hallmark Hall of Fame each produced telefilms of the metaphorical fantasy.
Like that other undying favorite “The Wizard of Oz,” this story carries the central theme that the answers to life’s mysteries and possibilities lie in your own back yard. Distinctively, however, “The Secret Garden” trades extensively in the private world of children, their early experiences with profound emotions and their battles with contrary, often irrational adults.
An exotic title sequence conjures up the unhappy childhood of 10-year-old Mary Lennox (Kate Maberly) in British colonial India. When her parents are killed in an earthquake, the orphan is sent to live in the gloomy, 100-room Yorkshire mansion of her reclusive uncle, Lord Craven (John Lynch). A shell of a man since the death of his beloved wife a decade before, Craven ignores both Mary and his crippled son Colin (Heydon Prowse), whose bedridden life is tyrannically run by the estate’s housekeeper, Mrs. Medlock (Maggie Smith).
Rude and disagreeable at first, Mary, who laments that “I’ve never had any friends,” soon becomes intrigued by the existence on the grounds of a secret garden that has supposedly never been entered since Lady Craven’s death.
In league with down-to-earth local boy Dickon (Andrew Knott), Mary begins nurturing the unkempt garden, just as she begins an edgy, illicit friendship with Colin. Initially a bossy crybaby of the first order, Colin begins to be convinced that he won’t necessarily become a hunchback like his father and die young, and is eventually taken on his first exhilarating outing by Mary and Dickon.
Although the wrath of Mrs. Medlock continues to threaten the children, Colin grows to health in the embrace of the magical garden, which teems with all manner of colorful life, leading to a heartwarming reconciliation with his father and the liberating of the inner spirits of all concerned.
There is nary a misstep along the way in telling this potentially precious tale. Screenwriter Caroline Thompson (“Edward Scissorhands,””The Addams Family, “”Homeward Bound”) has structured the piece impeccably, and has also fashioned particularly memorable dialogue between Mary and Colin.
This is also a tribute to Holland and her youthful players. Using all British thesps of proper age (unlike the earlier Hollywood version, which seemed cast too old), the director displays an unerring instinct for obtaining truthful performances from child actors.
Maberly has a beauty and direct gaze that grow on the viewer as the film progresses and proves absolutely up to the demand of carrying the picture.
Prowse (who had never acted before) has an ashen, haunted quality as Colin that is quite affecting, and this makes his slow rise from pathetic confinement all the more involving.
Smith brilliantly sustains the character of a dictatorial witch who will no doubt terrify younger viewers.
This is the most graceful, elegant and assured filmmaking that Holland has ever done, and the same adjectives can be applied to every physical aspect of the British-lensed production. Ace production designer Stuart Craig has made the secret garden as densely verdent and glorious as he has the Misselthwaite mansion frigid and haunted. Cinematographer Roger Deakins has possibly topped his considerable previous work with his richly atmospheric lighting and compositions here, and Isabelle Lorente’s editing gives the story a subtle urgency.
During an era of many pointless remakes, this is one that proves its worth every minute.