If you’re in need of a fresh film for your family’s movie night, the new “Secret Garden” film sure seems like a perfect pick. The title suggests fantasy, whimsy and lovely outdoor visuals. It sounds like just what a group of people stuck inside during a pandemic would want to watch, right?
But then you remember that it’s based on Frances Hodgson Burnett’s 1911 novel, and you may recall that “The Secret Garden” is far from a light, fun romp.
The latest “Secret Garden” is, like the book, about an orphan who is sent to live in a manor with her stern uncle and bedridden cousin. Yes, it has beautiful period outfits. Sure, it has extravagant sets. Of course it has a sweeping musical score. But it is decidedly un-fun.
Directed by Marc Munden and produced by the team behind “Paddington,” “The Secret Garden” is available on-demand starting Friday. So, should you spend 99 minutes watching?
The answer is only yes if you’d like to see these five things onscreen:
In “Secret Garden,” Firth tries his hardest to be ugly. As the strict Lord Archibald Craven, the Oscar winner hunches over, drinks too much, mourns the loss of his wife, yells at young protagonist Mary (Dixie Egerickx) and barely acknowledges his sickly son. He also doesn’t get too much to do in his limited screen time other than breathe angrily.
“The Secret Garden” has a depressing premise, what with Mary alone in a strange place and her cousin Colin (Edan Hayhurst) missing his mom and being stuck in bed all the time. Accordingly, the two children spend most of the movie being really, really upset. She tosses her doll in the water and proclaims that she’s “not a child!” He wails in his room and complains that he’s so sick that “the stench of roses almost killed me!” But once Mary inevitably gets Colin to the magical garden outside, they are nearly crying-with-joy happy. It’s a dramatic film, indeed.
The titular garden is indeed gorgeous and green, with huge trees that help Mary climb them and CGI robins that show her where the gate is. The vibrant outdoor scenes, which were shot in gardens in Britain, are filled with flowers, vines and lens flares. But much of the movie takes place inside the rooms of an old house, which can feel particularly claustrophobic to viewers who may be used to spending many days in a row inside.
Here’s something you don’t expect to see in a family film, or really any movie: a lead character being mean to a dog. But that does take place, briefly, in “The Secret Garden,” when Mary first meets a shaggy stray. Then the pup’s paw gets caught in a trap, which is even more upsetting. But the dog is important, because he serves as a catalyst for Mary to begin to show kindness and make her first (human) friend, Dickon (Amir Wilson), a charming boy who helps tend to the pooch.
“The Secret Garden” doesn’t shy away from topics of mental illness. For example, there are flashback scenes of Mary trying to get the attention of her depressed mother, who won’t leave her bedroom. “Her sadness has made her unwell,” Mary’s father explains. “It’s not her fault.” And there’s young Colin, who spends years in bed convinced he’ll be “a hunchback” (like Firth’s character) who’s unable to walk, when neither of those things are true. The PG-rated movie has color and magic, but it sure isn’t light.