All ages can bask in the enchanted glow of 'The Secret Garden'

MOVIES

August 13, 1993|By Steve McKerrow | Steve McKerrow,Staff Writer

"The Secret Garden"

Starring Kate Maberly, Heydon Prowse, Andrew Knott and

Maggie Smith

Directed by Agnieszka Holland

Released by Warner Bros./American Zoetrope

Rated G

*** 1/2 Bringing classic children's literature to the screen poses pitfalls -- especially when a highly regarded film version has come before and the work has also been turned into a successful Broadway play.

Addressing too many expectations leads too often to fatal tinkering in the quest for something fresh.

So celebrate "The Secret Garden," a rich, new film version of the 1911 book by Frances Hodgson Burnett.

The movie enchants, with a visual texture that clearly bears the mark of executive producer Francis Ford Coppola ("The Godfather," "Dracula") and confirms the arrival of Oscar-nominated Polish director Agnieszka Holland ("Europa, Europa").

Sparkling, believable performances by young actors, the steadying presence of veteran Maggie Smith, an elegant musical score by Zbigniew Preisner (including a song co-written with Linda Rondstadt) and, especially, an uncommon respect for the stately pace of the source combine to make a lovely movie.

A recent preview audience of parents and young children offered spontaneous applause as the credits rolled. You expect that from a carefully engineered triumphant ending, such as in "Free Willy," but here it seemed more genuinely appreciative of the whole film.

Imagine. A kids' movie that merely tells a story equally engaging children and adults.

Don't expect from this "Secret Garden" the Broadway musical that won four Tony awards a few years back. The film offers a relatively faithful adaptation of the book, with only a few liberties that offer an unnecessary 1990s psycho-therapeutic touch.

A respected 1949 film version starred Margaret O'Brien, Dean Stockwell and Elsa Lanchester, and a less-successful TV movie was also made in 1987, with Gennie James, Billie Whitelaw and Derek Jacobi.

The new film is most reminiscent of the splendid public television adaptations of "Anne of Green Gables" and the other stories of Lucy Maud Montgomery.

Mary Lennox (Kate Maberly) is a resentful British orphan who has lost her neglectful parents in a great earthquake in India. (In the book, her parents died in a cholera epidemic).

Parents of especially young viewers should note that the film's presentation of the temblor is subtly terrifying, as we see only Mary's view of the event from beneath her canopied bed. And the depiction of her sense of sudden abandonment is also powerful.

Arriving with other quake survivors in England, she is the last child to be claimed by a family. Stern housekeeper Mrs. Medlock (Ms. Smith) arrives to take her to Misselthwaite Manor, the

castle-like Yorkshire estate of Mary's uncle, Lord Craven (John Lynch).

"What a queer, unresponsive little thing," says Mrs. Medlock of the girl. And that she is -- a smoldering-eyed, spoiled child who throws a tantrum when a young housekeeper's assistant, Martha (Laura Crossley), suggests she dress herself.

But her willful ways also unlock the key to the mysterious mansion.

"The house was dead, like a spell was cast upon it," narrates Mary.

Ah, but not quite dead. In fact, the house itself (actually a variety of English locations, including the Eton and Harrow boys' schools) provides one of the liveliest "characters" of the film.

All glowing, dark wood, hanging tapestries and fathomless ceilings, the brooding structure matches Mary's character. And as she pokes about, the perpetual groan of the wind across the desolate moors adds to the gothic gloom.

She slowly learns the tragic story of her surviving family. Her hunchbacked uncle's lovely young wife (sister of Mary's mother) died shortly after producing a sickly child, Colin (Heydon Prowse). Lord Craven has never recovered from the loss, becoming a distant recluse who has more or less abandoned the boy to the pampered confines of a big feather bed.

With the help of a friendly robin, Mary also finds her late aunt's treasured retreat: a neglected garden behind a tall brick wall, a garden into which the young girl will sow new life, finding not only her own lost way in life but also renewing the whole family.

"The Secret Garden" follows the frequent convention of young people's literature, assigning to children the role of healing adults. In one of the film's few missteps, Mary's voice-over narration emphasizes this point in far too modern psycho-babble.

Better to have let the story stand on its own.

Nonetheless, when young Colin exclaims "the magic worked" in the movie's climactic scene, viewers will have to agree the words apply to the film, too.

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