Fantasy feels forced in Showtime’s “Back to the Secret Garden.” Lacking a sense of wonder or wow, this loose interpretation of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s much-filmed novel isn’t heartfelt enough to touch the families who will tune in because of the familiar title. The few detailed touches are certainly welcome, but British accents and pretty costumes can’t hide its humdrum execution.
A pickup from Artisan, this re-telling is based only on characters from “The Secret Garden,” and may well be remembered for Camilla Belle, whose performance should sound some casting bells. With an adult sensibility and a maturity that brings to mind Leelee Sobieski, Belle is charming beyond her years and carries this project from the moment she appears onscreen.
She plays Lizzie Buscana, an American orphan with a green thumb who comes to England in 1946 as part of an exchange program. Her sponsor is Lady Mary (Cherie Lunghi), the virtuous wife of Britain’s U.S. ambassador who recently left her post as head of Misselthwaite Manor orphanage, handing the reins to Martha Sowerby (Joan Plowright).
Lizzie arrives and instantly becomes a hit among the other children. Hardly prim and proper, her defiant spirit rouses the girls, attracts the boys and makes her the resident rebel. She doesn’t, however, fit in the way Martha would like, so a strict eye is kept on her wherever she goes.
Once she gets comfortable, Lizzie discovers — with the help of a magic door and some snooping around — a garden that is in desperate need of maintenance. Martha hasn’t been able to preserve it the way Lady Mary imagined — and that’s good news for Lizzie, who uses her street smarts to assume the role of keymaster and become the land’s savior.
Stocked with lush settings and good perfs, director Michael Tuchner could have grandly and boldly explored a sense of imagination and creativity; instead, little attention is paid to what the tykes might be thinking beyond plants and animals. And according to this rendition, the tots live a life of luxury, study classic literature with famous professors and have the freedom to come and go as they please. It’s a paradise for parentless preteens without an ounce of heartache.
Joe Wiesenfeld’s simple screenplay never strays, but no alteration he has made to the 1911 original is significant enough to justify this second-string version.
There’s ample opportunity to highlight the beautiful countryside and take full advantage of the era, but tech credits are merely sufficient instead of special. Deirdre Clancy’s period clothing is the project’s most notable effort; on the flip side, production designer Peter Mullin’s supposedly glorious garden — the pic’s centerpiece — looks like an inexpensive set.