There’s always been magic in Frances Hodgson Burnett’s “The Secret Garden,” a classic children’s story that, for all its harsh lessons about the nature of the world, relies on some pretty strange twists of fate to deliver its story. We’re talking, of course, about the robin redbreast, a cheery, chattering little bird responsible for one of the story’s biggest revelations. While Burnett’s 1911 novel never shied from the rough stuff — like most of her work, the book is concerned with orphans and illness — it used real-world pains to make its pleasures richer. And still, even it relied on a plucky robin to guide its heroine, the sassy Mary Lennox, to a literal key that opens the titular Secret Garden.
Yes, magic is part of Burnett’s world, but the story’s latest big-screen adaptation stretches that concept to strange ends, and not all of them benefit the film. Marc Munden’s film, scripted by Jack Thorne (who is suddenly everywhere with “Radioactive,” “The Aeronauts,” “Dirt Music,” and the upcoming “Enola Holmes”), is vested in the idea that “The Secret Garden” could use a little imaginative freshening; it’s also interested in exploring its darker edges. Even with that in mind, the disparate tones never coalesce and the film tilts uneasily between Gothic drama and childish magic, occasionally finding delight in the process.
A very serious title card tells us that we begin at “the eve of Partition,” withMunden’s vision of “The Secret Garden” leaning into Burnett’s well-trod darkness from the start. Mary Lennox (Dixie Egerickx, a solid choice for a complicated character) has been orphaned in short order, and the servants she relied on to do everything for her (from feeding to cleaning to even dressing) have long since abandoned the Lennox family estate. Rescued by a befuddled Englishman and packed off to the crumbling British manor of her dour uncle, Lord Craven (Colin Firth), the preteen Mary chooses to meet the rest of life’s challenges as an adult. (Firth sinks into his tragic role and doesn’t stand a chance against the film’s compelling young stars.)
Misselthwaite Manor and its very odd inhabitants test her resolve from the start, and that’s to say nothing of her inner demons or the weird screams she hears every night without fail (are they real? or another imagined fancy born of tragedy?). Young Mary soon finds her days filled with solitary play, most of it on the eerie moors and in the cloistered house. Along the way, she happens to meet her ailing cousin Colin (Edan Hayhurst), who seems hellbent on usurping her as the most sour member of the family; she also stumbles upon the titular garden, but nearly halfway through the film (a major misstep by Munden).
As Mary grows stronger, she’s thrilled by her new pal Dickon (Amir Wilson), a sweet abandoned pup, and the garden itself — at least Munden’s vision of the garden is perhaps the most stunning version yet committed to film. As Mary and her green thumb grow, the film tips away from its Gothic shadings into something more bent on magic, but not all of those choices charm or fit within a film that can’t quite figure out its own tone.
There are moments that work, like when Mary’s lush wallpaper comes alive, or flashbacks that see Mary (and even Colin) walk into the past to observe their mothers — who were deeply bonded sisters — at rest in the garden. Others offer a weird silliness that doesn’t befit Burnett’s story or the dark cast that Munden throws over the material, like a scene in which a bed of ferns appear to happily chitter at the children or another in which overgrown leaves seem ready to choke them. They seem like something ripped out of lesser, bouncier fairy tales, not something Burnett (and her robin, who shows up here in finicky CGI) would ever portray.
Munden has more success in balancing the film’s emotions. Eventually, the cousins become rivals for their dead mothers’ affections, lashing out at each other with frequent claims that their respective moms didn’t love them, and also that — wait, wait, no, they did! It’s confusing and painful, but so are Mary and Colin’s childhoods; it’s a concept that suits the material. Munden and his young stars also succeed at finding a middle ground between Mary and Colin’s own darkness and light, two children who use their good hearts and good spirits to pull away from a lifetime of tragedy.
The film builds to a more overt expression of that idea that speaks to Burnett’s powerful theme of reconstruction, although it’s also a bigger alteration of her material than all that magic fuss. This film is not the best representation of Burnett’s works, which toed the line between the magical and the painfully — but in the moments when it succeeds, “The Secret Garden” blossoms into something beautiful.
STXfilms will release “The Secret Garden” on PVOD on Friday, August 7.