Thursday, September 20, 2018

Neglected Gem: The Secret Garden (1993)

Kate Maberly, Andrew Knott and Heydon Prowse in The Secret Garden (1993)

Agnieszka Holland’s The Secret Garden is the second film version of the beloved Frances Hodgson Burnett children’s novel about a young girl who’s sent to live in the English countryside after her parents die in colonial India. The first was directed by Fred Wilcox at MGM in 1949, in glistening black and white and (in the garden sequences) the intense storybook Technicolor we remember from The Wizard of Oz and Meet Me in St. Louis and National Velvet. Done up in the lavish MGM bound-classics style, it’s a handsome production that provides a deluxe Gothic mansion, a stunning carriage ride through the moors in a heavy evening rain, and – best of all – the formidable child actress Margaret O’Brien (the morbidly fanciful Tootie of Meet Me in St. Louis) as contrary Mary Lennox. Though Wilcox’s technique is a trifle shaky (the camera’s not always in the right place), and the late scenes drip into melodrama, the movie is highly satisfying.

You could say that Wilcox’s version and Holland’s are a matched set of opposites. Burnett’s book, written in 1911, is a fable that attacks Victorian notions of child rearing – the idea that children ought to behave like miniature adults and be removed from social interaction until they’ve actually become adults. The protagonists, Mary and her cousin, the shut-in invalid Colin Craven she doesn’t know at first is living in the same house, are the victims of parents whose self-absorption has made them negligent, and the delicate, fancy treatment the children have received, as meager compensation for a lack of genuine attention, has warped their growth; they have to be let loose in the world – to confront the weather, to get involved in the natural cycle of the seasons – in order to grow straight and tall and stable. The story is built around the quirky friendship of these two cousins, who scream and squall at each other until their combined ugliness of temper has undergone an explosion – an exorcism. From that point (halfway through) the book becomes more conventional: we watch the fable working itself out as Mary and Colin, under the guidance of the Yorkshire farm boy Dickon, create horticultural miracles – in the secret garden Colin’s father boarded up after his wife fell from a swing there, sustaining an injury from which she never recovered. (She died in childbirth.)

The MGM adaptation takes its tone mostly from the conventional scenes, Holland’s and the screenwriter Caroline Thompson’s from the odd, gnarled, repressed Victoriana. These two women miss the rhymed elegance big-studio Hollywood could bring to the story – the velvet-and-chocolate cream classiness. The scenes that center on the embittered, widowed hunchback, Lord Craven (John Lynch, looking constipated), are soppy, convictionless. But the filmmakers get the sweet-and-sour mood, the emotional clarity of the children’s exchanges, and the tart comedy they make together.

Margaret O'Brien in The Secret Garden (1949).

As Mary, Kate Maberly has huge eyes and long, straight hair that shoots down her back like a muddy shower. Her usual expression is glowering expectancy, followed by a torrent of fury – entitlement mixed with continual disappointment. But when she’s stirred, her eyes flicker with clandestine curiosity, which she douses the moment an adult appears. (The nearness of a grown-up is like a corset wound around Mary: immediately she burrows insider her dress and grows sullen and fugitive.) Heydon Prouse’s Colin has a dainty, porcelain face, but there’s a spirit alive inside it; the boy is practically chained to his bedchamber, but that face is hyperactive, as if it were his body’s only way of signaling how much he yearns to be set free. When he and Mary meet, they have to gnaw and scratch their way through all those remembered years of loneliness and distrust before they can find out they’re soulmates. You’d have to go back to Cocteau’s Les Enfants Terribles to find a relationship of two children that’s as bizarrely funny as this one. And standing calmly in the background is Dickon (Andrew Knott, more of a presence than an actor, but extremely effective), an emblem of the natural world Mary and Colin learn to inhabit.

Working with the great English cinematographer Roger Deakins, Holland does something splendid with the garden scenes, especially Mary’s first glimpse of the deserted, overgrown space, which is a whorled, dusky tangle. The garden is, of course, a symbol for both children, who bloom in the fresh air; one of the movie’s most potent images is of Dickon’s pony cart pulling the shutters off Colin’s bedroom windows so the sunlight can stream in. But in Holland’s version that growth remains mysterious, a beautiful, weird secret. (Holland shows us the sprouts stretching themselves through the soil; the time-lapse photography may be banal, but the way it’s linked to the theme isn’t.) In a scene that seems to pay homage to the Halloween interlude in Vincente Minnelli’s Meet Me in St. Louis, the children perform a ritual, invoking the spirits to draw Colin’s father home, and the sequence works, as the telekinetic bits in Holland’s Olivier, Olivier couldn’t, because the magic in this movie comes out of an all-powerful nature that’s strangely connected to the cycle of human lives. (Thompson and Holland alter the cause of Mary’s parents’ deaths in India from cholera to an earthquake.)

Holland’s Secret Garden is different from the other children’s-story films I love; it’s thornier, with comic scenes where you don’t expect them, and the humor hisses like a punctured blister. That’s Holland’s kind of humor; you’re meant to cackle at it. The movie might be very hard to take if it didn’t have so much feeling in it; that’s how Holland takes the chill off a cruel world. What you miss in The Secret Garden, though, is the sensual transport of Carroll Ballard’s The Black Stallion or Irvin Kershner’s The Empire Strikes Back or Steven Spielberg’s E.T., movies that sweep everything up in them like cyclones. It’s the element that separates Holland from the magic-carpet filmmakers who seem to operate purely on instinct, as if the camera were an extra limb or a sixth sense. Holland is all idea and skills; you can hear the clicks. The movie isn’t sorcery, but it’s worked out with remarkable intelligence.

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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