The Secret Garden

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.

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for almost 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

Support the Chronicle  

READ MORE
More Agnieszka Holland
Agnieszka Holland on Polish Cinema
Agnieszka Holland on Polish Cinema
Further thoughts on the Austin Polish Film Festival

Anne S. Lewis, Nov. 3, 2011

More Agnieszka Holland Films
In Darkness
Agnieszka Holland, the director of Europa Europa, creates a blood-quickening Holocaust drama about Poles who were hidden in the sewers.

Marc Savlov, March 16, 2012

The Third Miracle
Ever since The Exorcist, we've come to expect movies about the spirit world to be filled with lots of special effects, flashing lights, and green-pea ...

Marjorie Baumgarten, March 4, 2000

More by Marjorie Baumgarten
Nomadland
Story of America's itinerant population wanders too much

Feb. 19, 2021

The Reason I Jump
Poetic insight into autism, based on Naoki Higashida memoir

Jan. 8, 2021

KEYWORDS FOR THIS FILM

The Secret Garden, Agnieszka Holland, Kate Maberly, Heydon Prowse, Andrew Knott, Maggie Smith

MORE IN THE ARCHIVES
NEWSLETTERS
One click gets you all the newsletters listed below

Breaking news, arts coverage, and daily events

Can't keep up with happenings around town? We can help.

Austin's queerest news and events

New recipes and food news delivered Mondays

Eric Goodman's Austin FC column, other soccer news

Information is power. Support the free press, so we can support Austin.   Support the Chronicle