‘The Secret Garden’ review: Children’s classic becomes a horror film

Has Rob Zombie directed “The Secret Garden”? Sure, the 1911 book’s roots lie in gothic literature, shrouded in gloom, but I have never watched an adaptation of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s novel and repeatedly thought, “Is someone going to get murdered?!”

Until now.

Everything screams horror. The giant Yorkshire manse that the orphaned Mary Lennox (Dixie Egerickx) arrives to from India looks not like it’s haunted by a tragic past, but as if Ryan Murphy is about to begin a shoot with Jessica Lange and a wacky serial killer. There are several actual ghosts.

Driving the dinginess off a cliff, director Marc Munden’s indoor visuals are low-budget Guillermo del Toro, dimly lit and cavernous, only without much texture, detail or character. The first 30 minutes are a drag.

Nonetheless, there is just one element that any “Secret Garden” needs to be successful: a garden that is secret. And this one is more eye-popping and color saturated than the Teletubies. At its most fruitful, you’re greeted by a ceiling of hanging yellow flowers that are impossibly lush. The film should have spent more quality time there.

Tending to near-dead plants and pulling weeds with a young gardener named Dickon (Amir Wilson) brings Mary, her cousin Colin (Edan Hayhurst) and his widower father Archibald (Colin Firth) out of the British frost and back to life.

Mary is a tough part to play. Her parents, who didn’t like her that much to begin with, have recently died, and she is moved from hot, sunny India to rainy England. She is therefore impetuous, stubborn and bratty, and people don’t like whiny children. The actress’ job then is to find some tiny thread of charm in being an unruly monster. Kate Maberly managed it in the infinitely better 1993 version. Egerickx, who acts like a know-it-all, doesn’t quite get there.

The Secret Garden 2020.
Dixie Egerickx as Mary Lennox in “The Secret Garden.”STX Films

Egerickx also doesn’t get the benefit of cracking back-and-forth with the strict housekeeper Mrs. Medlock (Julie Walters), because the role barely exists now.

Firth, who can still be a heartthrob when he wants, douses the smoldering embers of old romance and turns Archibald completely tense and awkward. It’s a wise choice that makes his eventual transformation more poignant. The actor is, unfortunately, involved in the movie’s biggest misstep — a pointless fire rescue scene that was definitely not in the book. Let’s add a death-defying action sequence to … “The Secret Garden”?

One role and performance the upped darkness suits is little Colin, who has been bedridden and isolated since his mom’s death, because of his dad’s irrational fear that the outside world would kill him. Hayhurst’s angst and untethered shouting make you ache for the poor kid. Some actors approach Colin’s kvetching with a wink, however Hayhurst’s dedication wrings out some tears in the end. He has a bright future in hopefully brighter movies.

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