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film criticism by maryann johanson | since 1997

The Secret Garden movie review: weedy with misplaced eeriness

The Secret Garden red light

MaryAnn’s quick take…

Pointless adaptation of the beloved children’s novel soaked in a gothic spookiness that seems to deliberately misunderstand the story. Neither literal enough nor magical enough. My heart was unmoved.
I’m “biast” (pro): I’m desperate for stories about girls and women
I’m “biast” (con): did we need another big-screen mounting of this book?
I have not read the source material
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)
women’s participation in this film
male director, male screenwriter, female protagonist
(learn more about this)

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.

The Secret Garden Colin Firth

Honestly? I mostly wanted to see this for Colin Firth, and he’s barely in it.

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.


Click here for my ranking of this and 2020’s other new films.



red light 2 stars

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The Secret Garden (2020) | directed by Marc Munden
US/Can release: Aug 07 2020 (VOD)
UK/Ire release: Oct 23 2020

MPAA: rated PG for thematic elements and some mild peril
BBFC: rated PG (mild scary scenes, threat)

viewed at home on PR-supplied physical media or screening link

official site | IMDb | trailer
more reviews: Rotten Tomatoes

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