The Secret Garden (14th Kinoteka Polish Film Festival) Review

Agnieszka Holland’s 1993 version of the children’s classic, showing in the Kinoteka Festival

The early twentieth century. Ten-year-old Mary Lennox (Kate Maberly) is the indulged only child of wealthy parents in India. When they die in an earthquake, Mary is shipped back to England to live with her uncle Lord Craven (John Lynch) at his estate Misselthwaite Manor in Yorkshire. However, her uncle is all but absent and her only contact is the stern housekeeper Mrs Medlock (Maggie Smith) and the young maid Martha (Laura Crossley). Only allowed one room in the great mansion, with Martha’s help Mary secretly goes exploring and in short order discovers her bedridden cousin Colin (Heydon Prowse) and a secret locked garden in the grounds…

Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden was first published in 1911 and has been adapted for film and television several times, most famously the 1949 big-screen version with Margaret O’Brien as Mary. In the early to mid 1990s, Warner Brothers made or distributed some new versions of classic (and out-of-copyright) children’s novels, which included not just The Secret Garden but the 1994 film of Black Beauty (the directorial debut of the scriptwriter of The Secret Garden, Caroline Thompson) and a 1995 adaptation of Frances Hodgson Burnett earlier novel A Little Princess. All three are excellent films and show that sometimes they do make them like they used to, and as well as they used to.

The Secret Garden and A Little Princess are as good an illustration as any of the difference a director brings to a film, given that they are based on novels by the same author. A Little Princess, directed by a Mexican man (Alfonso Cuarón) is very colourful with a good few magic-realist touches. The Secret Garden, directed by a Polish woman, Agnieszka Holland, is much more astringent in tone. It doesn’t play for easy sympathy – knowing of Mary’s early bereavement helps keep us on side, which is just as well as for most of the first third she’s distinctly spoiled – a clearly damaged spoiled brat, but still a brat, and the story is one of overcoming the effects of childhood neglect. After the reds and oranges of the opening sequence in India and the action moves to Yorkshire, Holland and her DP Roger Deakins mute the colours considerably, establishing a palette of cold blues and greens and greys. As life returns to the Craven household, the colour temperature gradually warms on the way to a genuinely moving ending.

After the banning of her 1981 film A Woman Alone, Holland had lived in exile from Poland, working mostly in Europe, tackling her native country’s recent past in the French/US English-language To Kill a Priest, World War II in the German-made Angry Harvest and Europa Europa, and working in French in Olivier Olivier. Produced by Francis Coppola’s company American Zoetrope, The Secret Garden was her second English-language film. The story is firmly focused on the younger members of the cast: Maggie Smith and John Lynch, are the main adults, but they are really supporting roles. (Irène Jacob appears briefly as Mary’s and Colin’s mothers, twin sisters in a change from the novel.) The young cast (ten-year-old Maberly, Prowse, whose only feature this is, a year older and Knott and Crossley two further years older) cope admirably and are very well directed by Holland. Behind the camera, Stuart Craig’s production design (which involved building the entire secret garden is first-rate. The composer is another Pole, Zbigniew Preisner, and for once there’s a song over the end credits, cowritten and sung by Linda Ronstadt, which doesn’t seem out of place.

The Secret Garden has been a favourite novel of young children (girls especially, I’d suspect) for over a century. This film version shows, though it didn’t need showing anyway, that films aimed for children and family audiences can and should be as well-crafted as those for adults. First-rate.

The Secret Garden shows in a 35mm print on 16 April at 1.30pm at the BFI Southbank, London, as part of the 14th Kinoteka Polish Film Festival in its Agnieszka Holland retrospective.


Updated: Apr 16, 2016

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