Program Notes: The Secret Garden (1993)

Despite the technological wonders of special effects, real movie magic is a rarity.

Today’s kids grow up watching special effects-heavy films capable of creating creatures, landscapes, and characters that don’t exist in our real three-dimensional world.

The downside of all this eye candy is that for all the visual pizzazz, few films really “get” to us any more. Most movies are intent on at tricking the eye, but their essential emptiness cannot fool the heart.

The Secret Garden, Polish director Agnieszka Holland's adaptation of Frances Hodgson Burnett's children's classic, doesn't have any real special effects to speak of.

But it's pure magic nonetheless.

Film Screening:
The Secret Garden (1993)
Saturday, Sep. 29 at 1:30 p.m.
Central Library

With delicious surprises at every turn and scenes of breathtaking visual beauty, this film grabs us in that delicate soft spot where our childhood fears and hopes still reside.

Holland – whose very adult-oriented Europa Europa and Olivier Olivier both examined young people under extraordinary circumstances – and screenwriter Caroline Thompson (Edward Scissorhands) recognize that the best children's literature occupies a nether world between the real and the fantastic.

They deftly maintain a delicate balance between the lyrical and the commonplace, creating a third reality that seems palpable and poetic.

The Secret Garden centers on Mary Lennox (Kate Maberly), a recently orphaned 10-year-old who travels from India to an England she has never seen. She's to live with her sole surviving relative, an uncle by marriage named Lord Craven (John Lynch), at his estate, Mistlethwaite.

But Mary seldom sees Craven, who can't stand to live in the house since his wife's death. His sorrow is so deep that he even walled off his true love's private garden, allowing it to be overgrown by weeds and vines.

In his absence, Mrs. Medlock (Maggie Smith) runs the household. She is prim and proper with no tolerance for childish excess and absolutely no sympathy for Mary who – accustomed to third-world servants – adopts a sullen and imperious attitude.

Defying Mrs. Medlock, Mary begins exploring. She makes two young friends who give new meaning to life at Mistlethwaite.

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Holland is exactly right for this material because she appreciates children without sentimentalizing them. For all of its visual beauty The Secret Garden never gets sappy; often it's bleakly funny, thanks to Smith's dour presence and a delightful turn by Laura Crossley as a big-hearted but terribly dim maid.

This determination to eschew the saccharine has a big payoff, for when the film finally does rise to an emotional pitch, we're ready and eager for it. There won't be a dry eye in the house.

No small part of the film's magic is due to the spectacular production design of Stuart Craig and the cinematography of Roger Deakins.

Mistlethwaite becomes a character in itself: The grounds are winter-barren and gray; the house is so thick with ornately carved wood, heavy stonework, and thick tapestries that it seems to bury its inhabitants in an avalanche of musty, faded glory.

Toward the end the brown garden does finally come to colorful life, and only then does Holland pull out the special effects tricks. But that’s okay, for by that time the movie has earned our love and respect.

Other films in the series “Kids’ Classics”

Saturdays at 1:30 p.m.:


Admission to these films is free.

About the Author

Robert W. Butler is a lifelong Kansas City area resident, a graduate of Shawnee Mission East High School and the William Allen White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas. For several decades he was the movie editor of the Kansas City Star; he now writes a movie-themed blog at He joined the Library's Public Affairs team in 2012.

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