‘The Secret Garden’ doesn’t quite bloom

“The Secret Garden” – After a prolonged, winding political road, India gained independence from Great Britain in 1947.

This historical moment scooped up Mary Lennox (Dixie Egerickx), a 10-year-old girl living in India at the time.  This young Brit – nestled in the lap of financial luxury as a child ex-pat – suddenly lost her parents.  She also gained her independence, but in the most unwanted way.   Now, this newly orphaned girl baths, sleeps, and eats on her schedule, but she soon discovers that proper sustenance, direction, and boundaries become as elusive as conversing with her mom and dad.  An only child, she owns an active imagination, and now, her solitude morphs into isolation.  Regularly speaking to her dolls under a makeshift tent, constructed of a bed sheet, acts as her only refuge from the cold world outside, even though it has blue skies that match the 90-degree heat.

English soldiers eventually find Mary wandering in her family’s lush manor without supervision.  However, diplomats promptly send her to England to live with her Uncle Archibald Craven (Colin Firth) in director Marc Munden’s “The Secret Garden”, based on Frances Hodgson Burnett’s best-selling novel.

Although “The Secret Garden” is a children’s story centered around a wildly colorful, massive patch of wilderness noted in the film’s title, it soaks in dark themes of depression, loss, and death, and not subtly either.  This hidden place of wonder is the catalyst to free a few characters from their collective malaise.

Munden and cinematographer Lol Crawley heavily rely on visual storytelling throughout the picture, as the drab reality of the manner’s gloomy grays and impersonal vibes contrast with Mary’s vibrant dreams.  This chid’s journey, therefore, takes on personal, fanciful moments.  The camera regularly zooms close to Mary with a fishbowl-like lens and moves alongside her like a Steadicam with zero stability.

Nearly everything in the picture feels like a dreamlike state.  When Mary meets her uncle, her cousin Colin (Edan Hayhurst), the housekeeper Martha (Isis Davis) and her brother Dickon (Amir Wilson), and also the estate manager Mrs. Medlock (Julie Walters), one might question if these introductions are hallucinations or not.  Is Ms. Lennox’s journey merely a 99-minute fabrication, and she’ll eventually wake up from her slumber at the end of the movie?  Well, no.  Mary isn’t Pamela Ewing (Victoria Principal) (from “Dallas” (1978 – 1991)), where the joke is on us, but Munden and company make us wonder.

In this movie’s reality, Mary’s reaches out to her limited number of potential connections in the immense, barren home and beyond.  The latter is the mythical backwoods with tree roots resembling elephant trunks and thick green moss as prevalent as shag carpet in a 1970s suburban cul-de-sac.  Eventually, she stumbles upon a secret garden, filled with butterflies, wispy grasses, yellow canopies, and lavender flowers, and it MUST have magical properties, because this otherworldly space surely couldn’t exist at the 55th parallel.

There’s no mistaking that computer animation gives birth to onscreen delights in this mini-enchanted forest, but these eye-catching views are reprieves from the strict existence at home.  Uncle Archie and Mrs. Medlock must have lionized “Pink Floyd: The Wall” (1982), because they parent poor Mary like that film’s authoritarians, as we wait for one of them to break out, “How can you have your pudding when you don’t eat your meat?”

Unfortunately, it all feels inconsequential and muddled as Mary shuttles back and forth between the two worlds and tries to drag Colin along to yank him out of his lifetime funk.  He whines a bit too excessively, but that’s okay, because he seems as two-dimensional his dad, Mrs. Medlock, and everyone else we meet.  Firth only gets about 12 minutes of screen time, so any designed audience empathy drawn to Uncle Archibald doesn’t materialize.  He and Mrs. Medlock are Mary’s foils, but their heavy-handed methods are forced and delivered without nuance.

Munden and screenwriter Jack Thorne don’t spend a lot of time on gamesmanship between our young protagonist and the emotionally-distant elders.  Indeed, they missed opportunities, but when adapting from a rich novel, the filmmakers need to cut corners somewhere.  So, “The Secret Garden” becomes a polite distraction rather than a gripping, involved narrative.  There’s not enough emotional magic despite the massive efforts to present a universe filled with it.  Perhaps the Indian people carried all the sentiment in the picture, but that – unfortunately – occurs off-screen.

⭐⭐  out of  ⭐⭐⭐⭐

Image: STXFilms, Trailer credits: KinoCheck International

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