Written by: Blanche Hanalis, based on the novel by Frances Hodgson Burnett
Directed by: Alan Grint
Starring: Gennie James, Barret Oliver, Jadrien Steele, Michael Hordern, Billie Whitelaw, and Derek Jacobi
- Production Notes
Released by: Artisan
Rating: NR; suitable for all audiences
Anamorphic: N/A; presented in original TV aspect
My Advice: Buy it
Mary Lennox (James) is leading a spoiled, perfect life in the Raj, where, as she says, the British rule like gods. But when her parents die and she is sent to live with a family friend in England, everything changes for Mary. She is truly alone–no friends, no family, no country even, as Yorkshire is very different in every way from her native India. When she finds the key to an abandoned walled garden, however, a garden with a past nearly as tragic as her own, things start to change. She finds a purpose and eventually friends–the mysterious Dickon (Oliver) who can talk to animals and make anything bloom, and the sickly heir to Misselthwaite Manor, Colin (Steele). As the garden is coaxed back to beauty, so are Mary and Colin, and even the adults Mrs. Medlock (Whitelaw) and Colin’s father, Archibald Craven (Jacobi). The story in this version is quite faithful to Burnett’s original, perhaps the most faithful of the handful of versions out there, with the exception of the frame story with adult Mary and Colin–an addition that surprisingly works well and continues the positive, yet pensive, tone of the book and movie.
[ad#longpost]The acting is superb. Michael Hordern as the faithful gardener Ben is just amazing; he breathes life into what could be a small part and shows how important a relatively minor influence can be upon a child’s life, or even an adult’s life. Derek Jacobi is suitably melancholy and almost melodramatic as Colin’s father; this makes his transformation at the end of the film, mere seconds of screen time, all the more dramatic. Jacobi can do with a simple facial expression what lesser actors can only do with pages of dialogue. Whitelaw is by turns snide, cold, and finally human as Mrs. Medlock. James, Oliver, and Steele as the young main characters of the movie are marvelous. Mary is just as irritating, nasty, and precocious as she’s supposed to be, Dickon is nearly silent, but speaks volumes about beauty and compassion, and Colin is simultaneously pathetic and endearing, a neat trick for a teenage actor, even one whose corpus also includes such fine films as The Mosquito Coast. Even the fox, squirrel, and lamb steal their scenes when they appear with Dickon.
The film is also blessed with lovely visuals, though the video transfer could have been better, particularly given that it was remastered. There is a wee bit of graininess, though the cinematography and settings make up for this. England’s historic Highclere Castle provides the housing, and Paynter’s photographic touch provides the look that grows from rainy, grey, and sullen to a saturated rainbow of color reminiscent of What Dreams May Come, but does it so slyly that he does not tip his painterly hand too soon.
The sound, remastered with the visuals, is crisp and clear. The music is not intrusive, but is supportive, and the vocals are perfect. Colin’s voice, thanks to Steele, grows from whiney to affectionate and strong, while Mary’s voice is similarly modulated to demonstrate her internal changes. A brilliant touch that just goes to show that great acting is not restricted by age–lucky for the viewers, as the success of the film relies almost entirely upon the strength of the three youngest actors.
In short, fans of the novel will love this adaptation, but so should those adults who have never read any of Burnett’s work or those who fear that The Secret Garden is too “girly” or childish for their sophisticated lives. The beauty of the book version is that it holds a magic for all ages that just begins in childhood and that hopefully will stay with us all our lives–even throughout great losses as the characters face. The movie is no different and demonstrates visually that wisdom, courage, compassion, and strength know no age. Fans of this book and the movie will also want to check out the even better 1949 version.