The Secret Garden's fourth film adaptation has a Gothic noir mood

The Secret Garden (PG, 100 minutes)

3 stars

When a book is as beloved as Frances Hodgson Burnett's 1911 tale of childhood, broken families and the magic that heals them, it finds itself revisited again and again in popular culture.This is the fourth big-screen adaptation among other theatre and television adaptations.

Dixie Egerickx in The Secret Garden. Picture: Supplied

Dixie Egerickx in The Secret Garden. Picture: Supplied

A new version often meets a critical audience who may not be able to move beyond a previous adaption they adore.

That was my mindset going into this latest adaptation from multi-BAFTA winner Marc Munden, because I couldn't imagine anyone bettering, or wanting to better, Polish director Agnieszka Holland's brilliant 1993 version.

I mean, imagine the hysteria were someone to throw together a new cast remake of Harry Potter now. Unimaginable.

But I was being paid to see it and so I set aside my reservations, and it slightly pains me to say this production of The Secret Garden is pretty decent.

For those not familiar, the film begins some time at the beginning of the last century with bratty British expat orphan Mary Lennox (Dixie Egerickx) being shipped back from India after both father and mother have succumbed to various tropical illnesses, reluctantly taken in by incurably sad Uncle Archibald (Colin Firth).

Despite its dour splendour, her uncle's Yorkshire Moor estate is is more like a prison, lorded over by housekeeper Mrs Medlock (Julie Walters), who issues Mary firm instructions not to wander the grounds or much of the house.

Unable to endure her lonely bedroom, Mary's wanderings outside introduce her to a dog she names Jemima (Fozzie), who helps her stumble upon a hidden garden which, as she revisits it, reveals charming animal friends, possible magical properties and other secrets. Mary shares her secret garden with estate gardener Dickson (Amir Wilson), and together they share it with the estate's other lonely prisoner, Mary's cousin Colin (Edan Hayhurst).

The book has been set as a school text for close to a century, there must be hundreds of thousands of lost and forgotten essays out there about its use of metaphor and analogy.

It overtly deals with loss and grief and the healing power of nature and love, as well as the transition from childhood to whatever comes after. Viewed through a contemporary lens, though, and particularly as Munden directs this version, this is a dark, practically Gothic tale with elements that feel thoroughly modern. I'm talking parents bubble-wrapping their children, gaslighting, juvenile delinquency and post-colonialism, though Munden employs some glorious and expensive CGI to be quite literal about the magic of the garden, rather than evoking the sexualised subtext I remember a high school English teacher embarrassing us with.

I did very much appreciate the film's depiction of the garden, with elements of crumbling old castle, and CGI that allows the filmmakers to amp the charm and mystery up to 100. There are tropical species, plants that change colour as the children move through them and plants whose scale lend certain scenes an Alice in Wonderland quality.

Many of the interior scenes at Misselthwaite Manor are given an enjoyably theatrical palette by production designer Grant Montgomery, adding to the Gothic noir feel.

The producers have commissioned an up-to-the-minute act, the Norwegian singer-songwriter Aurora, for the theme song, likely imagining the Oscar nomination it might inspire. It is lovely.

The dialogue between the children has been given a more contemporary tweak by screenwriter Jack Thorne and is as acerbic and mean-spirited as anyone who has hung out with a third-grader would recognise.

The child actors do fine work, particularly Egerickx, who has a difficult line to walk with Mary being so deliberately disagreeable for much of the film. Aussie actor Maeve Dermody makes a series of appearances as Mary's ill-fated mum, while Firth emotes through his disfiguring makeup to give the awkward uncle empathy and pathos. Walters gives a restrained performance, which is I think less of an acting choice and more to do with the role being given less emphasis in this production.

This story Classic story has a modern feeling first appeared on The Canberra Times.