THE SECRET GARDEN (2020)

August 6, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. In the years since Frances Hodgson Burnett’s novel was first published in 1911, “The Secret Garden” has become one of the most popular and oft-read children’s books. Previous film adaptations include the 1949 version with Margaret O’Brien and Dean Stockwell, and the 1993 version with Kate Maberly and Maggie Smith. Additionally, the novel has been adapted numerous times for the stage and television. Director Marc Munden is working with the screenplay adapted by Jack Thorne (WONDER, 2017), and the two had previously collaborated on the BBC series “National Treasure”. Readers of the beloved novel will certainly recognize the changes and differences within this version, both in characters and theme.

As the film begins, we are told it’s “the eve of Partition”, which was the 1947 division of British India into two separate states: India and Pakistan. This timing is, of course, quite a bit later than Ms. Burnett’s setting, but the effect is the same – young Mary Lennox (Dixie Egerickx) is orphaned when her parents die, and left alone when the servants desert her. She is shipped off to live with an uncle (Oscar winner Colin Firth) she doesn’t know. Accompanied to massive Misselthwaite Manor by the housekeeper, Mrs. Medlock (Julie Walters), Mary quickly understands that Uncle Archibald Craven is a grieving widow (his wife was Mary’s mother’s sister) who is not to be disturbed, and his hunchback is not to be stared upon. Mary soon learns that her spoiled brat manner will not be tolerated, though her natural spunk will prove advantageous. The young girl is one who is accustomed to be waited on, while also wanting to prove her independence.

Mary’s imagination is extraordinary and she often asks, “Do you want to hear a story?” CGI effects allow us to see what she has envisioned, whether it’s the wallpaper coming to life, or her mother and aunt frolicking through the halls or swinging in the garden. Mary soon befriends Martha the maid (Isis Davis), and then happens upon “Jemima” the dog while wandering the estate grounds. It’s here where the fantastical and supernatural meet reality, and a helpful Robin leads Mary to the key that unlocks the gates of the gardens that have been locked away since Uncle’s wife died. Mary and her new friend Dickon (Amir Wilson) go on adventures through the garden – a garden which has mystical powers.

One evening Mary hears cries echoing in the halls of Misselthwaite. Despite being forbidden from exploring, she discovers her cousin Colin (Edan Hayhurst) locked away in a far off bedroom. Colin is a sickly child, supposedly stricken with a spinal problem that keeps him from going outside. Mary continues to visit Colin, and soon she and Dickon are sneaking Colin into the secret garden, where the magical healing powers begin to take hold. The titular garden doesn’t make an appearance until about one hour in, but its beauty and wonder are on full display.

This is a story about the power of loss and grief and depression, and it offers the life lesson that the things we care for blossom and grow and thrive. This version has some elements of such classics as “Peter Pan” and “The Chronicles of Narnia” in that fantasy and magic play a much larger role than in the novel. Director Munden employs a darker approach and seems to emphasize self-discovery. Young actress Dixie Egerickx was a standout in the recently watched SUMMERLAND, and she is terrific here – despite the changes to the story that some fans might not embrace. The film seems a bit disjointed at times, but it’s always a feast for the eyes, and offers up one of the year’s best scores, courtesy of Oscar winner Dario Marianelli (ATONEMENT, 2007).

Available Video on Demand August 7, 2020

watch the trailer:


SUMMERLAND (2020)

July 30, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. We get our first glimpse of Alice Lamb as an older woman in 1975 pounding away on her Royal typewriter before abruptly and rudely shooing neighborhood kids away from her door. We then flashback thirty-something years to World War II, and find a younger version of Alice still clacking away on the same Royal and still chasing off the local youngsters. Segments with the older Alice bookend the film, but most of our time is spent with the younger Alice in the first feature film from writer-director Jessica Swale, a renowned playwright.

Gemma Arterton (QUANTUM OF SOLACE, 2008) plays younger Alice, a writer and researcher based in the countryside of Kent. She’s not just a reclusive writer, but we learn she’s holding a grudge against the world ever since she was denied true love while at University. The townspeople view her as antisocial, while the local kids refer to as a witch. When the local school Headmaster (Tom Courtenay) refers to her “stories”, she quickly corrects him to “Academic Thesis.” It’s no wonder she’s earned the label, “Beast on the Beach.”

During the German Blitz, many London families sent their kids to live with families in the much safer countryside. One day an official brings young Frank (Lucas Bond) to Alice’s home for temporary guardianship, and she responds “I don’t want him” … yes, in front of the boy. Frank’s father is fighting during the war, while his mother is working with the ministry. Of course, we know that Alice’s iceberg of a heart will eventually thaw, and it begins when Frank expresses an interest in the legends and folklore at the center of Alice’s research. Of particular interest to Frank is Summerland, the pagan term for afterlife, and the corresponding images.

As an evacuee, Frank is a bit of an outsider at school, but he makes friends with Edie (Dixie Egerickx, THE LITTLE STRANGER, 2018), a spirited young lady who, like most kids, doesn’t much trust Alice. It’s interesting to watch as Frank and Alice reluctantly grow closer, but this is war time, and joy is sometimes difficult to come by. However, this odd couple seem good for a life lessons to the other.

Penelope Wilton plays the older Alice and Gugu Mbatha-Raw lights up the screen in only a few scenes, and it’s Ms. Arterton’s best work since TAMARA DREWE (2010). Young Alice experiences visions and memories of a past life not meant to be. The twist is quite obvious, yet no less effective. Ms. Swale’s film is sentimental and melodramatic, and probably employs a few too many clichés. Yet, although predictable, it does offer hope; and given the times we are in, a hopeful message is quite welcome – as is the reminder that “stories have to come from somewhere.”

IFC will release the film VOD/Digital on July 31, 2020

watch the trailer: