Our rating: 5 out of 5
reviewed by Charity Bishop
It has been many years since I read The Little White Horse, the book on which this film is based, but remnants of it returned to me in watching the beauty of its nuances on screen.
The recent death of her father has forced young Maria (Dakota Blue Richards) to move to the country to live with her eccentric uncle Sir Benjamin (Ian Gruffudd) in a foreboding old house set in the midst of a darkened wood. Thieving gypsies run rampant in the neighborhood and Maria is warned not to befriend them. Her companion and governess Miss Heliotrope (Juliet Stevenson) attempts to keep peace between Maria and her uncle, but their situation worsens when he removes from her possession her inheritance from her father -- a large, dusty old book with a morbid fairy tale in it about an evil curse. Maria is curious about the house and its occupants. There is a ferocious black dog whose reflection in the nearest mirror is that of a lion, a curious cook in the kitchens who moves at the speed of light, and someone keeps leaving her cookies and milk and strange gowns in her room.
As Maria learns more and more about her surroundings, she comes to wonder if perhaps the legend in the book is true after all -- if she has stumbled onto a dark secret and must return the pearls that are the cause of so much misery to the sea before the moon rises. Determined to thwart her is the leader of the gypsies, De Noir (Tim Curry), and his rambunctious trapper of a son, Robin (Augustus Prew). I was very sorry to see trailers for this and then learn it was an international release rather than a local one. I think given half the chance, American audiences would have responded well to it, because it has exquisite costuming and sets, beautiful acting, and lovely patches of dialogue, but at least we have a DVD release! It is not a truly magnificent adaptation of the book (many fans are disappointed) but as stand-alone material, is a wonderful way to spend an evening. I thought the cast was rather odd but they were all wonderful, playing off one another in comedic and dramatic style. Gruffudd is a bit more stern and disapproving here than I am accustomed to, but it's impossible not to love his grouchy Sir Benjamin. Everyone is great but the movie really belongs to Juliet Stevenson... just when did she become one of my favorite actresses??
I cannot say enough about the costuming and set design, which are a blend of classic Victorian with a slightly fantastical twist. Often the inner workings of the bustles are on the outside of the dress, which makes for an unusual and curious garment. There are so many frills and ribbons and layers that a costume drama fanatic will fairly tremble with excitement. (I can testify to spending hours studying the nuances of the gowns; they are exquisite.) There are a few moments when the CGI is a little bit fake but for the most part it looks like a big-budget production and acts like one. Everything about it is stunning. True, it is sometimes a little predictable and the targeted age group is rather young, but the prettiness of everything and the amount of enjoyment I gathered from it makes it impossible not to recommend. There are minor content issues but nothing serious -- various amounts of disobedience on Maria's part, which often lends her getting into precarious situations, and violence in the form of threatening behavior, gypsies attempting to drag a young woman off into the wood, and two men get into a scuffle more than once. A couple of mild profanities intrude.
One thing that bears mentioning is the fact that they have laced the young heroine into gowns that show minor amounts of cleavage, which feels slightly inappropriate considering she is very young. There is of course magic and conversation about being children of mother earth, but none of it is presented in a serious manner and furthers the plot rather than being unnecessary. Chances are if you enjoy other fantastic adventures in a similar theme, you will love and find yourself drawn to The Secret of Moonacre.