The Secret Garden (1999)


Our rating: 4 out of 5

Rated: G

reviewed by Lindsay Graham


Since its publication in 1911 by Frances Hodgson Burnett, The Secret Garden has become one of the most beloved fairy tales of all time and been adapted to film for almost every generation, and in this particular adaptation near perfection has been achieved.


At the age of ten, Mary Lennox (Kate Maberly) is a spoiled little girl living in India with her selfish parents who leave her in the care of servants who do little more than fulfill every desire, and submit to her relentless arrogance. However, when her parents are suddenly killed, Marys life is forever changed as she is sent to England to live in the home of her wealthy uncle, Lord Archibald Craven (John Lynch) and his ill son, Colin (Heydon Prowse). The estate, its owner, and the heir seem to be shrouded in mystery, yet what intrigues Mary most of all is the sad tale of Lord Cravens wife and a secret garden locked away for many years. Above all things, she wants to find her way behind those high stone walls and unlock the cloistered secrets that surround her guardian and his son. Before her and her friends lies one of the most enchanting experiences of their lives, as they make their way into the secret garden and are transformed by it...


This adaptation of Frances Hodgson Burnetts book is gorgeous. From the sets, to the costuming, to the locations, eye candy abounds. Filmed primarily, if not entirely, on location in England, the locations that were used in the production as Misselthwaite Manor and the secret garden are some of the most beautiful that I have seen. Almost every frame seems to exude the Yorkshire that Burnett described in the book, and give the film a realistic feel. The musical score is another aspect of the adaptations beauty, magical and descriptive, it adds to the film and brings greater interest to the story. 


There are a few unsatisfactory elements that might bring parents of young children a bit of dismay, the most obtrusive of these comes in the form of a night-time ceremony which the children perform in the garden to bring Archibald Craven back from his travels. Mary, Dickon, and Colin build a fire and are later seen dancing around it while chanting something that Mary learned while in India. The scene isn't of great length, but as to whether this chant or ceremony is related to any pagan religion or is even effective may be left to the speculation of the viewer. In almost every way, perfection has been attained in this film, yet young children should perhaps be guarded from viewing it before mom, dad, or an older sibling should preview it before a little one takes a stroll in this garden. Parents and older viewers will be able to discern the nonsense of this scene, but some children could be misled by it. 


Other than this are a few generally non-offensive references to magic (the same type that may be found in the novel). In addition to this is light horror as once or twice we see Misselthwaite Manor as a foreboding old house complete with spooky sounds, as well as bits and pieces of the earthquake that Mary's parents are killed in; lots of people rushing around, the tremulous shaking of the ground, a fire, and a young child witnessing the whole thing, but thankfully no gore.


Granted, there are several unsavory elements, yet when taken in comparison to the virtues of this piece, they may be easily overlooked. Many important lessons are learned by all three children, such as the importance of compassion, the necessity of teamwork and determination, the realization that the world doesnt belong to just any one person but that we all have the right to our bit of earth. For the three, the garden is a wondrous place where they discover the beauty of life and can learn to overcome the miserable events of their pasts. Colin and Mary are especially transformed in this magical place as they enter it as sour, somewhat unpleasant, youths and emerge as two loving, kind, and adorable children. They learn to live, and to love; in the cold environments that both grew up in, they were unloved and ignored but by entering the garden and learning to love one another and the beautiful creation of God, they change. They become less like miniature adults, and more childlike with every visit. This is a direct resemblance to how we become transformed through Christ's love for us. Before we enter into His presence, we arent truly living; He is the One who brings us to life. 


The acting is delightful, as the three children in particular light up the screen and carry the film.  Maggie Smith is superb as the disagreeable Mrs. Medlock, and John Lynch presents the perfect balance of melancholy and benevolence as Lord Craven. Kate Maberly particularly impressed me with her performance. She would later be seen in such productions as Finding Neverland and Daniel Deronda, but she gives one of her best performances as Mary. In the early portions of the film she depicts an arrogant, bitter, little girl, but by the end, her character is sweet, kind, and completely transformed. Maberly masterfully manages both aspects of her character, and I would love to see her given more substantial roles in more period films. 


I grew up reading the novel and eventually viewed several of the adaptations, but over the years, this one has remained my favorite. Part drama, part fantasy, the film is overflowing with lovely moments, memorable imagery, and will leave the viewer with an unforgettable memory of the garden that was locked away for many years.