Movie Review: “The Secret Garden” (2020)

There are many films which leave themselves open to interpretation.  Depending on the interpretation one takes, a film can either be enjoyable or disappointing.  Watching the new adaptation of “The Secret Garden,” my viewpoint on the movie made it an enjoyable experience, but my family was less convinced.

At the heart of the issue for us in the new Marc Munden directed drama, is whether the garden at Misselthwaite Manor—the secret garden, if you will—is magic.  Yes, actual magic.  When visited by Mary (Dixie Egerickx), Dickon (Amir Wilson), and Colin (Edan Hayhurst), the movie offers up images of the leaves changing all too rapidly, of the branches moving, of wondrous things taking place.  So, is it magic or something else?

When we first meet Mary, she in in India, telling herself stories as things around her go from bad to worse during Partition.  She is, we quickly learn, an imaginative storyteller, weaving narratives which help her through her day and night.  When she arrives in England, at Misselthwaite, her imagination is no less fierce.

The Manor is a scary place.  Her uncle, Archibald (Colin Firth), doesn’t really have any interest in her.  The woman who manages the house, Mrs. Medlock (Julie Walters), is stern.  Mary instantly gets off on the wrong foot with Martha (Isis Davis), the maid assigned to help her.  There are screams in the night.  It is, simply put, a completely different world from India and frightening to Mary in a whole new way.

Mary’s imagination is what keeps her going, and Munden makes it vivid and real, whether it is in scary ways (like people hiding under covers), or wondrous ones (pictures of her mother and aunt coming alive).  The way film depicts all this is striking; it as though the audience has truly entered this girl’s imagination, in manners both good and bad.

Consequently, when we finally do get to the garden itself and the place seeming to move about and have wondrous powers, I argue that what we are seeing is more of Mary’s imagination.  As she shares the garden with others, she is bringing them into her world, and they experience the garden in the same way she does – as a child’s imaginative paradise.  There is nothing magic about the garden.  Or, rather, there is no different magic in the garden than there is in Mary’s mind.

Such a view makes the movie powerful.  No, not perfect—there are dropped elements and some of the narrative turns and resolutions are over fast—but forceful.  Mary is a girl who has lost so much and who has retreated into herself, closing herself off.  Over the course of story she learns to let people back in and finds out that not only is it okay if they share her stories, that they can make the stories better, and the stories can help make the people better.  Archibald and Colin are saved by Mary’s tales (in more ways than one).  It is touching.

Ah, but what if the garden, and Misselthwaite in general, has actual magic going on?  What if the death of Mary’s aunt (Colin’s mother/Archibald’s wife) in the garden has indeed imbued the place with some sort of preternatural something that allow it to heal the sick and prevent injuries and more?

If one takes that view of the film, well, then there is absolutely nothing special about the movie at all.  It is the journey of a precocious girl, yes, learning to let people into her life once more, but mostly winning them over by showing them a place where actual magic happens.  The work, in this version of the tale, is not being done by the character, but by the garden.

That would, indeed, be gravely disappointing as film.  Sure, the visuals, like the gorgeous look of Misselthwaite, would be as striking and the actors as engaging, but the difference in message would doom it.

Try as I might, I could not convince my family that the way I saw the movie was the way Jack Thorne (who wrote the screenplay) and Munden intended to interpret Frances Hodgson Burnett’s novel.  I claim no authority here, no superior interpretation (and have never read the novel itself, unlike my wife and daughter), but I was entranced by what I saw.  For me, “The Secret Garden” hit home.  For them, it failed.


photo credit: STX Entertainment


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