A thousand embroidery hoops, T-shirts and posters on Etsy regularly remind us that well-behaved women rarely make history. On the British High Street and in daily life, by contrast, little girls are assailed by messages telling them to sparkle, be kind and smile. So how do girls learn to stop sparkling and start behaving badly? They find role models; in music, in their friendship circles, on the big and small screen and between the pages of their favourite books.
Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden featured one such role model. An audaciously rude girl called Mary Lennox who, we learn, by six years old was “as tyrannical and selfish a little pig as ever lived”. Young readers, and the grown-ups they became, have long been enchanted by Mary’s evolution from brat to heroine and the healing powers of the hidden garden she seeks refuge in, which changes the lives of everyone who enters.
The latest incarnation of this beloved tale is a colourful and fanciful big screen concoction helmed by director Marc Munden and reimagined by screenwriter Jack Thorne. In 1947, at her family’s estate in India, Mary (Dixie Egerickx) is discovered – orphaned and terrified – with the horrors of Partition as the dramatic backdrop to her isolation. She is sent to live at Misselthwaite Manor in Yorkshire, the home of her Uncle Lord Archibald Craven (Colin Firth).
Misselthwaite is an imposing presence when viewed from the train, looming out of the misty moors, and even less welcoming on closer inspection. After wartime requisition, its ravaged grounds are as bleak as the outlook of the estate’s reclusive owner. Housekeeper Mrs Medlock (Julie Walters) leaves Mary in no doubt that her presence is an imposition and a nuisance.
Prickly Mary reacts to the dressing down by retreating behind the facade of her arrogance and privilege. Having thrown her doll overboard on the voyage to England and vowed to grow up she has nothing tying her to her former life but the clothes in her case and flashes back to a colourful vibrant garden and a distant but beautiful mother wearily turning from her.
The manor is no place for a lonely child. The house groans and shifts in the still of night and mysterious screams penetrate the darkness. In the daylight hours, a reluctant Mary first escapes to the mud and rubble of the once-grand drive and then wanders further afield, shedding her sour face and bad attitude as new discoveries and a furry friend finally give her reason to smile.
There’s a whole lot wrong with Marc Munden’s The Secret Garden but let’s start with what he gets right. The earlier touches of magical realism work well with Mary’s sense of wonder as she finds the garden and is transported by its otherworldliness and peace. Lol Crawley’s joyous, dancing cinematography and Jens Rosenlund Petersen’s immersive sound design envelop us in the same sense of awe she feels.
Along with her new canine companion, Mary eventually finds a friend in the elusive Dickon (Amir Wilson) – brother of housemaid Martha (Isis Davis), who refuses to indulge Mary’s airs and graces but will aid and abet her mischief – and a sparring partner in her invalid cousin Colin (Edan Hayhurst) who appears as petulant and pampered as Mary once was but shares much of her pain too. She becomes fixated with the notion that his mother’s garden holds the key to his healing and, for the first time in her life, decides to do something good for someone else.
There were many unnecessary changes made to the original text but the decision to make Mary’s mother the twin of Colin’s was not one of them. If allowed to play out this would have lent a poignancy to the film that is conspicuous by its absence. Threads exploring grief, depression and despair fail to be woven into the narrative so that only the motif of the twins in memories, wall murals and ghostly visits remains.
And so much else is changed. Why would you film a book which so clearly bores you? Or one you think lacks pizazz for contemporary audiences. It seems a peculiar decision and is a question which lingers long after the bitter taste of the preposterous ending fades. This adaptation is too chicken to let Mary Lennox be the vile little prig we knew and grew to love. Too impatient to let her hard work healing the garden with Dickon slowly wear down her sharp edges and thaw her cold heart. And it has the cheek to squander the acting chops of Mr Colin Firth!
The chuck everything but the kitchen sink at it vibe is reminiscent of Peter Jackson’s CGI budget splurges in The Lovely Bones. The bones of Burnett’s lovely garden are right there on the page to lift out and reincarnate. Apparently, Marc Munden found their loveliness too mundane so he made the garden big and the melodrama bigger still. Happily, Dixie Egerickx’s performance is a charming one – though she might have enjoyed displaying Mary’s dark side – and Amir Wilson’s (underwritten) Dickon is a sweetheart even when deprived of his animal companions.
Rather than allowing the natural pace of seasons and hearts to change The Secret Garden is hasty and overblown – petrol station flowers instead of the rambling roses that lovers of the book long to see – racing to conclude before we spot the dripping dye and the petals drop. As entertainment it is not all bad; it’s Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland, every TV version of Jane Eyre, even a tad Mansfield Park. What it is decidedly not is Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden. Which is a terrible shame because THAT would have been a splendid sight to see.
The Secret Garden, a Sky Original, is in cinemas and on Sky Cinema from 23 October