The Secret Garden
1993, G, 101 min. Directed by Agnieszka Holland. Starring Kate Maberly, Heydon Prowse, Andrew Knott, Maggie Smith.
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., Aug. 20, 1993
The land mapped out in The Secret Garden is, indeed, a special place. This film adaptation of Frances Hodgson Burnett's beloved novel -- a childhood classic -- has a broad appeal. Neither talking down to children nor pandering to their parents, The Secret Garden functions something like a fairy tale in the way in which we all can latch onto different aspects of meaning during different stages of our lives and also in the way in which primordial and psychosexual concerns are made palpable in narratively distanced and socially acceptable terms. Like a fairy tale, we can, over time, return to the story and experience fresh meanings, conflicts and insights. It is, no doubt, felicitous that the film script was written by Caroline Thompson, the screenwriter of that remarkable fairy tale/fantasy Edward Scissorhands (also co-author of The Addams Family and Homeward Bound: The Incredible Journey). It is also fitting that a first draft was written years ago for Coppola's American Zoetrope by Carroll Ballard as a follow-up to his previous children's tale The Black Stallion. Many script rewrites later, The Secret Garden emerges as a deserving successor to The Black Stallion's mantle of classy kid entertainment. But the chief horticulturist of The Secret Garden is director Holland, here making her debut as a director of an American, rather than a foreign, production. (Coincidentally (?), she is joined in the American breakthrough of foreign-born directors by this week's director of our other “Recommended” movie, Hong Kong's John Woo.) After the more bracing subject matter of her two previous films, Europa, Europa and Olivier, Olivier, which, respectively, dealt with a closeted Jewish youth in Nazi Europe and a reality-based family tragedy and psychodrama, the Polish-born Holland has now turned her hand to more fanciful material. Still, she has imbued it with murky crevices and quietly gurgling psychosexual material. The adults in the audience are likely to catch on to all the film's implications; the little ones are more likely to sense feelings of ominous foreboding and chaste pleasure. Holland's visual strategies enhance the thematics of burgeoning emotions with its fragrant natural images of sprouting, blossoming, seasonal cycles and the all-encompassing sky. Narratively, these rejuvenating images are set against images of an earthquake, the dank, repressive household, and the loneliness of people without love. And Holland has maintained her interest in the dilemmas of childhood on the horns of adulthood. The children's performances are the biggest drawback to The Secret Garden as their earnestness occasionally gets in the way of the dramatic illusion. Perhaps as compensation, we have the brilliant performance of Maggie Smith. Cast in a classic Dame Judith Anderson-type repressive housekeeper role, Smith's nuanced abilities turn what ordinarily would have been a one-dimensional villain into a rich, sympathetic character. Risking cliché, we recommend that you stop and smell The Secret Garden's roses.