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MOVIE REVIEW : Why This 'Garden' Doesn't Bloom : There is a lot of wonder and charm in Agnieszka Holland's film, yet it seems stale, self-conscious and calculated.

August 13, 1993|KENNETH TURAN | TIMES FILM CRITIC

Saying so much as a discouraging word about "The Secret Garden" (citywide) feels unforgivably churlish. For this is that rare thing, an accomplished G-rated film, made by a respected director with fair fidelity from one of the great favorites of childhood literature. So why does the urge to scrawl graffiti all over its pristine surface seem so irresistible?

The problem is that director Agnieszka Holland ("Europa Europa," "Olivier, Olivier"), screenwriter Caroline Thompson and everyone else involved in this self-conscious production have been excessively aware that they were dealing with a classic and overly willing to be as reverential as possible toward it.

Rather than a fresh breeze, it's the stale air of gilded calculation, the uncomfortable feeling that things are excessively "just so," that overhangs much that is genuinely appealing about this film. So while "Garden" remains a tiptop feature to take small children to, unaccompanied adults might remember that even Peck's Bad Boy knew a thing or two in his time.

There is no denying that when Frances Hodgson Burnett, with "Little Lord Fauntleroy" already behind her, wrote "The Secret Garden" just past the turn of the century, she was deliberately creating a pure fantasy, a childhood idyll that updated the "once upon a time" feeling to what were then modern times.

The difference is that, having been written without the layers of veneration that have since accrued to it, the original "Secret Garden" is simpler, more unaffected and matter of fact than the film version. And whatever gossamer magic it spreads over its proceedings feels honestly earned and not self-consciously manufactured by Hollywood.

On the positive side, the current "Secret Garden" has, in its simplicity of storytelling and emotional gravity, shown considerable restraint, enabling it to tower over bloated childhood fantasies like "Hook." Not lacking in moments of wonder and charm, it also has the courage to remain fairly simple, successfully resisting the kind of false jeopardy that would ruin the innocent mood it works so assiduously to create.

"Secret Garden" begins with a brief scene, typically tasteful and just the tiniest bit calculated, of young Mary Lennox (Kate Maberly) being carefully dressed by a group of Indian servants, a small living doll in a bare white room.

"I was born in India," she says in her peevish voice, "but I didn't like it." It is soon apparent why. Mary's glittering parents, self-satisfied servants of the Raj, are more interested in the local boy maharajah than their own child. So when they die in a convenient earthquake, Mary feels no need for tears and is soon shipped off to her English uncle, Lord Archibald Craven (John Lynch).

It's not her retiring uncle who comes to meet her, but rather the supremely bossy Mrs. Matlock (Maggie Smith), a housekeeper who takes one look at our Mary, pronounces her "a queer, unresponsive little thing," and bundles the 10-year-old off to Misselthwaite, her uncle's vast mansion on the Yorkshire moors, complete with creaky doors, huge fireplaces, musty tapestries and all the trimmings.

Mary is worse than unresponsive. Spoiled by all those Indian servants, she is a huffy little miss who doesn't have the faintest idea of how to have fun. Her uncle, still locked in grief over the death of his wife a decade earlier, doesn't help things by keeping to himself. "The house was dead," Mary says, "like a spell was cast on it."

Not quite dead, as it turns out. There is the thoroughly cheerful servant girl Martha (Laura Crossley) and her brother Dickon (Andrew Knott), a Dr. Doolittle in training who knows the secrets of animals. And there is a wonderful hidden garden, locked up since Lady Craven's death, that Mary becomes ever so eager to discover and explore.

And, as all readers know, Mary uncovers not only the garden, but young Colin (Heydon Prowse), her invalid cousin, hidden away in one of the mansion's many rooms and frightened to death of fresh air. Helped by Dickon, the two young misanthropes find unexpected solace and healing amid the natural wonders of that secret garden.

Though even at her worst Mary never looks as bad ("thin, sallow, ugly") as the book makes her out to be, veteran British child actor Maberly does well with the girl's cheeky hauteur, and novice Prowse is the perfect little lord with a complexion "whiter than ice and marble." Not surprisingly, Maggie Smith, who can huff and puff and mutter "nonsense" like no one else, does best of all as Misselthwaite's resident busybody.

Given the paucity of G-rated films that don't make you gag, "The Secret Garden's" virtues make it more than welcome. Still, one can't watch it without wishing it came more from the heart and less from the kind of calculation that has led it to overdo its effects.

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