This latest — and rather pointless — adaptation of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s beloved children’s novel temporally transplants its orphan protagonist from the turn of the 20th century to 1947. Which appears to have no impact whatsoever on her tale except to make me wonder how lonely Misselthwaite Manor, on the Yorkshire moors, to which she is sequestered, escaped the fate of many a grand English estate in the interwar years of being taxed out of existence.
But no. Young Mary Lennox (Dixie Egerickx: The Little Stranger) finds her uncle, Lord Archibald Craven (Colin Firth: The Happy Prince), knocking around the cavernous place on his own, except for a few servants (Julie Walters [Sherlock Gnomes] and Isis Davis). Later she will discover a cousin, Colin (Edan Hayhurst), sickly and bedridden. The kids think the enormous, rambling house is cursed, for different reasons: she because it served as a hospital for soldiers during the war, he because it’s where his mother died.
It’s all very gloomy and chill, at least on the surface — the film never quite embodies eeriness, merely signposts it. Which feels wrong, in any event. Everyone here is haunted by grief, but the gothic spookiness that soaks the proceedings is ill-judged. Director Marc Munden seems to deliberately misunderstand the story’s overt, inescapable themes of people stuck in sorrow but eager for psychological rebirth and emotional renewal.
That reawakening will come for all via the titular secret garden, which has been locked away as too painful a reminder of that grief (no spoilers for those not familiar with the tale) and which Mary rediscovers in her wanderings around the estate. Here Munden stumbles, too, treating the wonder of the garden’s beauty as neither literal enough nor supernatural enough. When a moment of real magic finally arrives, it is odd and out of place. My imagination scoffed, and my heart remained unmoved.