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The Secret Garden

Posted to on August 18, 1993:

Hollywood hates children. The major studios see movies made for the entire family as quick money-makers that portray the world as sweetness and light. They also have to be simple so that kids "can understand them," with clear-cut good guys and bad guys and a happy ending where the bad guys are defeated so that the good guys can have a happy ending. Movies for children these days must contain idiotic slapstick, such as with the Home Alone movies and Dennis the Menace, or else they must be shameless, stupid tearjerkers like Free Willly or Heart and Souls, or else they must be animated and full of special effects and talking animals, as in the Disney films. None of today's Hollywood directors seem interested in making a challenging, entertaining film that the entire family can enjoy.

So it's no surprise that the most remarkable Hollywood debut since Kenneth Branagh's Henry V has come from Europe. Agnieszka Holland, who is best known for directing the outstanding drama Europa Europa, has come to Hollywood, and in particular to Francis Ford Coppola's Zoetrope Studios. She made The Secret Garden, which utterly destroys the conventions of Hollywood "family" movies. It's the most amazing feature film since The Black Stallion (which also came from Zoetrope--not a coincidence?), and it's a movie likely to be remembered for years to come.

This film has everything that Hollywood movies don't: a complete lack of "good guys" and "bad guys," outstanding acting, believable, lifelike performances from all--children and adults alike--beautiful, haunting scenery, a warm, life-affirming message that everyone is good (but the message is not the least bit sickly-sweet), and a storyline that will genuinely touch your heart and soul.

Based on the classic novel of the same name, it's the story of young Mary Lennox, a spoiled young girl born to a "society" family in India--but because her parents are part of society, they have no time to give their daughter a proper upbringing. She can't even dress herself without a servant, and she is ignored her whole life. She never even learns how to cry.

But when Mary's parents die in an earthquake, she is sent to England to live with her uncle, Lord Craven, in a huge, mysterious mansion in the English countryside called Misselthwaite. It's a dark, lonely place, completely shut up and seemingly trapping all life inside it, refusing to let things grow. Mary is promptly told by the head servant, Mrs. Medlock, where her place is: just as before, she is to keep to herself and be ignored, because Lord Craven refuses to see her.

But Mary is a stubborn, feisty spirit, and she will not allow herself to be stifled. It isn't long before she's out and about, roaming the castle and the land around it, discovering the secrets of why Misselthwaite came to be such a desolate place. She soon unlocks the door to the heart of the mystery: a garden, hidden away and untended for ten years, visited by no one except the animals. This garden is not dead, however--underneath the weeds and the neglected growths, there is life waiting to emerge and grow once again.

Here's where the film's message makes itself clear: love and caring will heal the deepest wounds and cause flowers to burst forth from the most barren ground--even the cold, lonely hearts of Mrs. Medlock and Lord Craven himself. It's all told in an utterly believable, careful fashion, so that we are never once hit over the head by the message and we look at it as gooey Hollywood sap.

As she breaks down the rigid order of things at Misselwaite and allows life to enter the manor once again, Mary makes some friends at last: the young, naive farmboy Dickon, who loves the animals and knows how to care for the garden; and the pale, sickly Colin Craven, a young boy who represents the stifling effect of the manor. He's been bedridden for ten years, tended by doctors and the well-meaning servants, but what he really needs is love to bring him back to health. That's what all the residents of Misselthwaite need, and Mary causes them all to sprout and reach for the sun once again.

Much of the credit for the film's success goes to director Holland, who is not afraid to use darkness to make us appreciate the light. We feel the ominous presence of Lord Craven's curse throughout the entire film; it's there, behind every corner, waiting for the chance to strike us down. It's a far cry from the cheap, treacly-sweet world of Hollywood kiddie movies, where you can't even say the word "death" for fear of upsetting the children in the audience. Its this darkness that gives this film its resonance, letting us feel for Mary and her friends.

Animals are used as metaphors for the re-birth of life: a robin leads Mary to the garden, it raises a family, and more and more animals appear (squirrels, woodchucks, deer, lambs) as the garden is re-born. It's been said that you should never appear in the same scene with animals, because they steal away all of the attention, but that's not true here. They play their part as well as the actors, appearing on the sidelines and making us smile, but never milking our sympathies so that we say "aww, cute!" There's no "cute" here, but there is great beauty. The film exults in the joys of Nature, and we revel in it.

This story seems obvious as I type it down, but on the screen the elements blend together so beautifully--the darkness, the acting, the scenery, the story--that not once did I ever think it was predictable. I found tears welling my eyes from the film's pure joy, and my heart was stirred. As the film moved towards its end, I found myself thinking and even praying that there would be a happy ending. I cared for the characters so much that I did not want to see a tragedy, such as death, put in to add cheap drama and make us cry.

Suffice to say, the film does not descend to the level of crass manipulation. It never falters, from the first frame to the last.

And here is where I have to report the bad news: it seems doubtful that The Secret Garden will be seen by many of the people it was made for. This is a G-rated movie--an endangered species in Hollywood--because it contains no violence. It is not animated. It has no action scenes, no special effects (except for a scene where the garden springs to life over the course of several weeks), and the audience Hollywood caters to above all others--teenagers--will probably find the movie boring because of this. As a result, Hollywood decides to promote ridiculously moronic comedies like The Coneheads and Son-In-Law as "family" entertainment. Warner Bros., the studio releasing The Secret Garden, is promoting Free Willy as the "family movie of the summer!" They don't realize what a treasure they have here. In the Boston area, this movie is only appearing at one single theater (the Copley Place mall), while the mean-spirited and cruel Dennis the Menace was released to nearly two thousand theaters across the country.

Therefore, I urge you: go and see The Secret Garden now, before it's too late. It's an experience you won't forget. You will be delighted, entertained, moved, and you will leave the theater with a smile on your face and joy in your heart.

This film is a true garden of earthly delights.