Film review: Back to the Secret Garden (2001), directed by Michael Tuchner
This is the sort of thing Hallmark will come up with if you give them half a chance. Which obviously someone did. If that person was a Facebook friend of mine, I’d de-friend them, oh yes! But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
It’s the 1940s or so, and Misslethwaite Manor is an orphanage. Martha Sowerby (Joan Plowright) is still around, as the manager or caretaker or what have you, while Lady Mary (Cherie Lunghi) and hubby Colin (Leigh Lawson) are somewhere in America doing something. I didn’t particularly care what they were up to, to be honest.
In America, Lady Mary comes across orphan Lizzie Buscana (Camilla Belle), and sends her to Misslethwaite because she appears to have green fingers. At Misslethwaite (if you at any point feel like exclaiming “hey it’s Downton Abbey!” you’d be right – they filmed it at Highclere Castle), Lizzie quickly finds the Secret Garden and tries to get it to live again because it seems to be dying. Martha has had the audacity to install a door, and not just the secret hidden door like before, yadda yadda.
Also starring: Aled Roberts as Robert, Florence Hoath as Geraldine (Kitty in Lost in Austen), Justin Girdler as Stephen, and David Warner as Dr. Snodgrass.
Back to the Secret Garden is a 2001 sequel to Hallmark’s 1987 adaptation of The Secret Garden. This is important to point out, because if you’re expecting Dickon, he died in World War I, and Mary and Colin have ended up marrying, because it’s not like they’re cousins or anything.
I loved Frances Hodgson Burnett’s original novel. It was wonderful, charming, well-written and magical. This production lacks everything of that, and insults it by completely misunderstanding the point of book. The Secret Garden was not actually a magical garden with magical portals to access it – it was a long neglected, dormant garden which was found through synchronicity and which plenty of hard work turned it into a flourishing garden once again. Yes, it was magical, restorative place, but only in the same way a rose is magical to behold, and beauty restores the soul. In this fluffy clatrap, they make the garden out to actually have magic powers, where half-dead plants miraculously come to life and blossom in the blink of an eye, no work involved. It’s not right.
That the main character is American wouldn’t be a problem, if it didn’t feel so bloody contrived. I imagine it like this:
“O hai, we’re Americans doing this and we can’t have y’all just be English people, so we’re gonna take this sweet li’l Brooklyn girl and squeeze her into the story for no other reason than hey, we really ought to have an American in there, because how else can we possibly relate to all of that British stuff? Let’s make sure she’s constantly talking about coming from America and that people think she talks funny, because actually, it’s the Brits who talk funny, so it’ll be hilarious. And let’s make sure she’s like the only sane one.”
At one point, it’s gasp, you’re a feisty girl from across the ocean, just like Lady Mary once was! Yeah, except Mary was a grumpy git who couldn’t get on with anyone for a good long while, until Martha finally started to break through her stubbornness. Oh yes, and for that matter, good ol’ Yorkshire Martha suddenly speaks with a very posh Queen’s English. It just doesn’t work.
As for Lady Mary and Colin being married (erm) and using Misslethwaite as an orphanage … well, I’m not convinced. But anyway. This story could have had potential, but it just didn’t work. The storyline – “boo hoo the garden’s dying and I don’t know what to do about it but darn those animals, who can suddenly get into a walled off garden for no reason, are cute!” – is silly and unengaging, the acting doesn’t work, even though the kids to as good a job as they can, and Martha is nothing like I’d picture the grown-up Martha to be.
Everything about this is wrong, and it has very little to do with the wonderful novel on which it is meant to be a sequel. 1.8 out of 5 white roses.