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The Secret Garden.

Chasing, searching for and discovering secrets

"The Secret Garden" (Warner's) can also be recommended for all ages, but its pleasures are more elusive. Based on Frances Hodgson Burnett's classic for children, which transcended a Victorian framework by its sense of hidden magic, this adaptation, directed by Agnieszka Holland, deliberately plays down gimmicks and sentimentality.

Kate Maberly has the central role of Mary Lennox, an orphan, who had been ignored by her parents. There is no attempt to make her attractive or exploit the situation for its pathos. At the outset Mary is high-handed and shows the effects of years of neglect. The story is one of slow discovery -- of friendship, the garden and psychic health.

The film captures the forbidding atmosphere of the Yorkshire estate where Mary has been sent after her parent's deaths, but entry to the garden seems easier and less wonderful than in the book. In contrast to the solemn opening scene in which Mary is dressed by servants at Misselthwaite, she is forced to fend for herself. She wanders through forbidden corridors and hears mysterious moans that she eventually learns come from her bedridden cousin Colin.

Colin's father (Mary's uncle), Lord Craven, master of the estate, still mourning his wife's death in childbirth 10 years previously, is excessively anxious about his son's health. His orders that Colin be kept away from sunlight and fresh air, and remain mostly in bed, are overzealously executed by his housekeeper (the incomparable Maggie Smith), who acts more out of her own fear than malice.

Mary is helped to health by the sweet-tempered humor of the servant girl Martha, who gives her a jump rope, prompting the girl's first expression of gratitude. She is befriended by Martha's younger brother, who rides a horse and has a special way with plants.

Once she discovers the garden, the austere tone is replaced by luxuriant shots of flowers and friendly animals. Mary now tackles the job of helping Colin overcome his fears. Eventually all three children participate in a powerfully imaginative ritual sequence, repeating incantations aimed at bringing Colin's father home.

Many were surprised that Holland, who grew up in Poland, the child of a Jewish father and a Catholic mother, and whose own films have dealt with the Holocaust, fascist repression, and dead or missing children, was chosen to direct "The Secret Garden." She got the assignment because of the success of "Europa, Europa," one of the most popular foreign films of recent years, an ironic account of a Jewish boy's search for survival amid the World War II brutality of both Nazis and communists. (The film brought her unfair accusations of anti-Semitism).

It turns out The Secret Garden was her favorite book as a child. "Part of its appeal," she says, "has to do with child abuse -- the fear of being rejected, abandoned, unloved -- but also the possibility of change."

"It wasn't a movie I made for me," Holland says. "I wanted to touch children. It's a gift for the audience." Those who aren't put off by the upper-class assumptions of the original story or haven't become addicted to TV violence will be grateful.

Joseph Cunneen is coeditor of Cross Currents.
COPYRIGHT 1993 National Catholic Reporter
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Author:Cunneen, Joseph
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Article Type:Movie Review
Date:Sep 3, 1993
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