May 29, 2023
Mary and Dickon in the garden, from the 1993 movie The Secret Garden.

30 years later, this children’s movie and its soundtrack still haunt me

Almost 30 years ago, my mother took me and my sister to see a movie that was supposed to be a mild diversion from Saturday, but ended up sticking with me my whole life: The secret garden. Produced by Francis Ford Coppola and directed by Agnieszka Holland, it was many film adaptations of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s classic children’s novel (the latest adaptation being Mac Murden’s 2020 film). Of all these films, however, Holland’s is my favorite – and watching it again as an adult, I’m struck by how well the film holds up.

The story is deceptively simple. Mary (Kate Maberly) is a young British girl growing up in colonial India. When her cold, loveless parents are killed in an earthquake, Mary is sent to England to live with her uncle, Lord Archibald Craven (John Lynch). Mary is a stony and difficult child, and she finds herself in good company among the brooding and dysfunctional residents of Misselthwaite Manor. But then Mary makes two discoveries. The first is the key to a mysterious garden, its door hidden behind an overgrown hedge. The second is Colin (Heydon Prowse), a cousin she’s never heard of, who suffers from an unknown illness and has never walked or left his room.

On the surface, the story is about the friendship that forms between Mary, Colin, and a boy named Dickon (Andrew Knott). Together they clean up the garden and use it as a sanctuary for the tough housekeeper Mrs. Medlock (Maggie Smith), where they teach Colin to walk.

Within this story, however, is a tender contemplation of grief, trauma, and healing. Mary gradually opens up to Dickon and Colin, realizing she is not unwanted. Colin learns his body is stronger than he thought, and he and Lord Craven are able to form a relationship. The story is told against the backdrop of the English countryside, the menacing mansion and the breathtakingly lush garden itself. Maggie Smith looks stunning as always, and Maberly makes you want to step across the screen to give her a hug. Holland makes some interesting directing choices, like echoing dream sequences and time-lapse photography, and they don’t seem to work, but they do. The secret garden is a perfect and delicate little story, with the garden acting as a beautiful metaphor for Mary taking root and blossoming.

Of course, the film is not perfect. Colin miraculously leaving his wheelchair was surely as tired and skilful in 1911 as he is now. But overall, it’s as emotional now as it was when I was 12.

What has stuck with me the most over the past 30 years, however, is the film’s music, composed by Zbigniew Preisner. One song in particular, sadly titled “Shows Dickon Garden” on the soundtrack, is a melancholic piano piece that is only a minute long. It’s simple enough to lend itself to endless embellishments and variations, some of which you hear throughout the film, and I’ve spent my entire adult life suddenly finding myself humming it while doing chores. The soundtrack won the Los Angeles Film Critics Association Award for Best Music, and Preisner has composed the soundtracks for dozens of films since then.

The secret garden is not a Christmas movie, but I always vaguely thought it should be. My brain is integrating it into Christmas movies, anyway. It may be because The secret garden does what some of the schlockier christmas dishes try and fail to do. He shows us how to find tenderness in a world so often harsh and unforgiving. He shows us how to look in the dark and find unexpected light.

The Secret Garden (1993) airs on HBO Max.

(featured image: Warner Bros.)

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