Ever since David Lynch, decades ago, flirted with the prospect of making a film of “The Secret Garden,” Frances Hodgson Burnett’s 1911 children’s novel, I’ve always leaned toward thinking it could make a great movie — and I’ve always imagined that movie as a spooky, earthy Lynchian dream, since that so connects with my memories of the book as a child. It was read aloud to my fourth-grade class, and every time the characters entered the garden of the title, it seemed to be as romantically odd and mysterious a place as Wonderland or Oz: a lushly eerie gothic Eden — a paradise that could restore life because, ironically, it held memories of death. But translating the somber magic of the book to the big screen has proved to be an elusive challenge.
In the new version of “The Secret Garden,” the Victorian setting has been jumped ahead about 40 years (the story now begins in 1947), and the atmosphere edges forward even more than that. When Mary Lennox (Dixie Egerickx), the snappishly unhappy 10-year-old British orphan who’s the central character, is brought to live with her uncle, Lord Craven (Colin Firth), in his mansion on the Yorkshire Moors, the garden she discovers behind a towering stone wall overgrown with vines may be a secret, but it looks more like an awesomely vast and sunny national park designed by 1950s Disney animators. It’s a forest of mossy trees, golden shafts of light, vistas that roll on without end, and every imaginable sort of flora, from hydrangeas to a section of bamboo, including one plant with swaying leaves that change color with the wind. The movie should have been called “The Secret Jurassic Nature Preserve.”
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The garden stands in contrast to Misselthwaite Manor, which has been filmed, by the British television director Marc Munden, as if it were the world’s most lavishly oversize and art-directed doll house. The walls are shabby-chic blue, with paintings of gardens on them, and even the lighting is blue; when Mary strolls through the hallways, hearing cries and whispers, we seem to be trapped in some weirdly decorous and aestheticized “Conjuring” sequel. Munden has worked on prestigious series like “Utopia” and “National Treasure,” but the way he directs “The Secret Garden” it always feels like he’s selling you something.
The horror-film atmosphere is mostly a tease, and when Mary meets the other children who are hidden away in the mansion’s nooks and crannies, the kid-to-kid dialogue is too punchy in its on-the-nose petulance. Colin (Edan Hayhurst), Lord Craven’s son, lives squirreled away in his bedroom, convinced that he’s a disabled soul; he’s a pale wraith who treats his wheelchair as a totem of suffering. But Mary and Colin, though they squabble a bit, are cousins who were put on earth to soothe each other. Their mothers, both of whom died, were sisters — and their relationship, so far back in the past, flowered in that garden.
But here’s where you confront the thing that bedevils adaptations of “The Secret Garden.” So much of the story — the core of it, really — is trapped in the past. It’s like “Heidi” crossed with “Vertigo.” And in the new version, that results in the present-tense story having a glumly passive and lackluster dimension. Not that much happens, really. Mary, played by Dixie Egerickx with all the perturbed sophistication you could want, bonds gingerly with the damaged Colin, and more spiritedly with Dickon (Amir Wilson), the nature-friendly younger brother of the mansion’s housekeeper, Martha (Isis Davis). These British kids spew dyspeptic gripes at each other. Then they go out together to the garden and feel better. Then they spew more insults, and go back out to the garden. Lord Craven, coldly protective of his son, threatens to send Mary away to boarding school, but have no fear: The garden will heal all.
In its top-heavy image-driven way, “The Secret Garden” is trying for some of the atmospheric poetry that was missing from Agnieszka Holland’s 1993 version. Yet if anything, that just makes it fall further away from the novel’s essence. The garden isn’t a supernatural place, but it’s supposed to be a mystical place. In this movie, it comes closer to being a special effect.
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