I almost resent that this film is categorized as a “family movie” because it is so much more than that. This film is the definition of art. The score, the scenery, and the eeriness alone are masterful. Then throw in the incredible talent of the girl playing Mary Lennox (Kate Maberly) and the acting force that IS Maggie Smith, and it completely blows you away.
If you don’t know the story (shame on you!), The Secret Garden is about a young girl named Mary who lives in India with her selfish, wealthy parents. When an earthquake leaves her orphaned, she is sent home to Britain to live at her estranged Uncle’s manor. Maggie Smith plays Mrs. Medlock, the head of the household and resident grouch-ass of the estate.
Both Mary and Mrs. Medlock are ruthless humans. Mary never smiles and is constantly making malicious comments and throwing tantrums. Mrs. Medlock gives zero shits about Mary and makes sure to tell Mary how ugly, pathetic, and unlovable she is whenever she gets the chance. They have some ISSUES. In fact, I’d say about 95% of the characters in this movie are hateful, bitter, suicidal, or all of the above. But isn’t that the foundation of any classic family film?
On her first day at the mansion, Mary goes exploring without permission and finds an abandoned wing of the house. It reminds me of the forbidden West Wing in Beauty and the Beast – a.k.a the place is a dump. She comes across her Aunt’s dressing table and opens a jewelry box. Inside, she finds an exquisite skeleton key (aaand cue my 25 year obsession with skeleton keys), which she promptly puts back. The table also houses a picture of her Aunt and Mother, who apparently were identical twins, as they sit on a swing in a garden.
As she continues to roam, she is drawn further into the house by the sound of a person crying and moaning. Before she can discover where the sound is coming from, Medlock is assaulting her and ushering her back to her prison/bedroom. When Mary tries to ask about the voice, Medlock tells her it’s the wind, which Mary reads as complete B.S.
Meanwhile, Mary befriends the only slightly normal person in the estate, Mrs. Medlock’s servant, Martha. Martha tells Mary about her Uncle’s solitude after the passing of his wife, and how he hardly ever comes home to his estate. When they finally let Mary out into the prison yard…I mean gardens, to play, she discovers a locked garden door that intrigues her. According to the old gardener working the land, no one’s gone in since the passing of her Aunt. Mary wants to know why. Eventually she remembers the key she found in her Aunt’s dressing table and uses it to enter the forbidden garden.
Mary isn’t sure if the garden is alive or dead, so she enlists the help of Martha’s vagabond younger brother (and underage HOTTIE), Dickon to help her. Dickon has the personality of a young Bob Ross — he’s gentle, friendly, and caretaker to all animals. Unfortunately though, he does not share Bob Ross’ out-of-control white man’s afro.
As the story progresses, Mary discovers the source of the moaning in the house: her bedridden cousin, Colin. Colin’s an entitled, translucent little child who spent his entire life in a bed being told he’s going to die soon. Uplifting.
Mary’s outspoken voice teaches him to move past his hypochondria and explore the garden with his cousin. Soon the three children are playing in their new secret garden and planning how they’ll use magic to force Colin’s father to finally return.
But not everyone at the manor is happy with this change, most notably Mrs. Medlock. Medlock struggles with her new uselessness as Colin bosses her around and resists her care. She blames Mary for the changes and becomes increasingly hostile and defensive. Mary forces Medlock and every other character to face their realities and come to terms with their demons, and the revelations are hard to swallow. But Mary’s biggest hurdle is learning how to simply be a child – to be happy, and to know what it’s like to be loved.
The Secret Garden is an elegant story about the innocence and struggles of childhood. There’s a dark beauty in the suffering the characters must endure to come into the light, and it’s visual poetry watching it all unfold. Also, it has cute baby animals.