Adapting a beloved novel into a film can be something of a tricky proposition. The mere fact that you are embarking on translating a vision that has resided in the minds of fans to the big screen feels like an uphill battle. Immersing yourself into a book is an extremely personal endeavor that is informed by all of the experiences that you bring to the story at that particular point in your life. As wrong as it can feel to have elements changed, filmmakers are often better off seeing their unique vision of the story through to completion rather than try to replicate something so personal. Some of the best literary adaptations are those that captured the spirit of the novel without following the source material page by page, such as last year’s spectacular Little Women. It is armed with this perspective that viewers should approach this new adaptation of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s iconic 1911 novel The Secret Garden. Produced by the team behind the Harry Potter films, this newest version injects a little more literal magic than fans might be accustomed to.
In an effort of full disclosure, I must admit that I have never read The Secret Garden before, so any opinions on the film as a whole comes without that history swaying me one way or another. At most, I have read a synopsis online to get a sense of some of the differences between the novel and this adaptation. The new film shifts the story forward nearly a half-century compared to the novel in 1947 on the eve of British India’s Partition. A young girl named Mary Lennox (Dixie Egerickx) has been orphaned after her parents have died from cholera, leaving her alone and abandoned in her home. After she is rescued from her dire situation, Mary is sent away to live with her uncle Lord Archibald Craven (Colin Firth) at Misselthwaite Manor in Yorkshire, England. Although a man of great wealth, her uncle is not emotionally in a place where he can offer Mary the kind of love and support she deserves. Lord Craven is still in the thick of mourning for his dearly departed wife as well as fearing for his infirmed son, Colin (Edan Hayhurst). The film does not shy away from the mature themes of the novel, but there is light to be found in the darkness.
Mary is a fascinating character on which to focus. She is not some sweet Pollyanna that is going to melt the heart of her sad caretaker. She is actually a bit of a jerk, as she was raised with some semblance of privilege with servants attending to her needs. There is also the fact that she believes that her mother hated her since any display of childhood exuberance resulted in chastisement. She does not really know how to be a kid, and she only begins to tap into that mode when she befriends a dog that eventually leads her to the titular garden. The secret garden is a wondrous place with golden shafts of light and incredible vegetation which is unlike anything Mary has ever seen. While the landscape features trees with leaves that change colors and some lightly personified plants, the film is actually a touch more subtle than you might expect from the team that brought you the Harry Potter universe. Mary soon starts connecting with other kids around the Manor, including her cousin Colin and Dickon (Amir Wilson), the nature-friendly kid brother of the mansion’s housekeeper, Martha (Isis Davis). The garden not only provides a place for these kids to explore and reconnect with their innocence, it also allows some of them to come to terms with their complicated parental dynamics.
I was really pleasantly surprised by the themes that were being presented in this story. Many of the characters are frozen in time by their grief, and the idea that life is meant to be lived is a simple yet often forgotten sentiment. The garden is meant to be a means which allows these characters to grow and heal, figuratively, as well as literally on occasion. It is also during this time of revitalization that the film tackles the concept that you may never really know the deep-down emotions of your loved ones, especially your parents. What a child may interpret as an uncaring nature may simply be a product of depression. Themes of mental illness and childhood neglect may be a bit heavy for a family film, but it is important for audiences of any age to understand that the mind is a fragile thing, and human beings are susceptible to these unpleasant realities no matter how much love they have in their heart for those closest to them. While the film does a decent job of setting up all of these poignant themes, it does not quite deliver the raw emotion that would seem to be appropriate. It is hard to pinpoint why exactly it does not trigger the waterworks, but it just did not get me there. I feel that the movie could have benefitted from some more time spent developing these characters even more. At just over ninety minutes before credits, the film really zips through the plot at the expense of some deeper character development.
As it stands, this newest adaptation is a good film, but not quite a great one. The performances from all of the main cast members are quite wonderful. Newcomer Dixie Egerickx is a revelation as Mary, transitioning from spoiled brat to endearing young lady with a natural ease. Colin Firth is appropriately dour as Lord Craven, but he is not really given much to do at the end of the day. You see his character consumed by grief, but you do not really get to sit with it and feel it. The incredible Julie Walters feels similarly underutilized as Lord Craven’s keeper of the house, Mrs. Medlock. The film is visually stunning and tastefully executed in a way that balances the gothic malaise of the Manor with the unbridled joy of the garden. Fans of the book are likely to be split when it comes to how this film tackled adapting this tale, but it works as a decent bit of entertainment when judged on its own merits.
The Secret Garden comes to Blu-Ray in a 1080p presentation that is truly stunning. This is a visually rich film with beautiful shots of nature throughout where you can see an incredible amount of detail. The vivid colors really pop from the greens of the foliage to the splendid colors of the various flowers. The Manor is a more dour environment that presents with a cooler tone that the presentation represents perfectly with a pleasing richness. The white levels are handled beautifully, along with the intensely deep blacks that do not appear to suffer from any compression artifacts. The skin tones look very detailed and natural all around. This presentation is definitely a standout on the Blu-Ray format.
The Blu-Ray disc comes with a DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio track that conjures a very specific mood that transports you back to this era in history. The luscious score from Dario Marianelli is showcased beautifully here with a gently enveloping use of the surround speakers. The dialogue comes through crystal clear without ever being overpowered by the sound effects or the score. The sound design is just as precisely thought-out as the on screen visuals with all of the sounds positioned just right in the mix. The environmental effects create a really nice soundscape of wildlife and subtle weather sounds. This is not an action-heavy film, so the activity in the low end is employed sparingly throughout the presentation. This is a lovely sounding release that brings the movie to life in a really beautiful way.
- Characters: A three-minute look at the characters with the cast and crew in which they go over their basic traits of each character and their relation to the story. You get some fun tidbits on the casting process including what drew the creative team to certain performers.
- Concept to Reality: A four-minute look at how the creative team set about bringing their grand ideas for the film to life, from the majestic design of Misselthwaite Manor to the creation of the enchanting garden. This brief feature provides some nice insight into the development process.
- Page to Screen: A three-minute look behind the scenes of the film with the cast and crew with an eye towards how they went about adapting the timeless, best-selling novel in a modern, vivid, and magical way.
- Official Trailer: The two-and-a-half-minute trailer does not really reveal the true depth of the film, but gives you a good idea of what you are going to get visually.
The Secret Garden is a pleasant family film that tackles some very rich themes, but does not quite hit it out of the park. The performances are wonderful, and the film is a feast for the eyes, but it is missing some small spark to make things resonate in a way that would make it an essential adaptation. Universal Pictures Home Entertainment has provided a Blu-Ray with a splendid A/V presentation and a few entertaining extras. While not a perfect film, it is still recommended for those looking for a family-friendly diversion to a magical world.
The Secret Garden is currently available to purchase on Blu-Ray, DVD and Digital.
Note: Images presented in this review are not reflective of the image quality of the Blu-Ray.
Disclaimer: Universal Pictures Home Entertainment has supplied a copy of this disc free of charge for review purposes. All opinions in this review are the honest reactions of the author.
Dillon is most comfortable sitting around in a theatre all day watching both big budget and independent movies.