Sunday, 11 September 2011

100 days, 100 films; Day 86 - The Secret Garden

#15 - The Secret Garden

We all know that when we’re a kid and we watch movies, there’s a lot of things we don’t pick up on that we do as adults. Things such as bad acting, bad special effects, plot holes and other goofs just go straight over our heads. Case in point – I thought Batman & Robin was the coolest movie ever when I was six years old. These days it’s not even so bad it’s good. It then kind of goes to show that you’d expect movies made for kids to not pay that much attention to storytelling since kids won’t appreciate it. Thankfully not all kids’ movies are like this and some of them will go down as some of the best, alongside the other movies. This film in particular I saw once when I was around seven and again when I was ten. When I watched it once again, I was blown away.

Our heroine is the ten-year-old Mary Lennox who lives in India in the early 1900s with her two British parents who are rich, but don’t bother themselves with her. One night during one of their regular parties, they are both killed by an earthquake. Six months later Mary arrives in England to go and live with her uncle in the huge and imposing Misselthwaite Manor in Yorkshire. Her uncle is always away from home, still deeply depressed about the death of his wife ten years ago, who was also Mary’s mother’s twin sister. Mary starts to explore the house and the grounds, finding her aunt’s old room and a key inside it. The key ends up opening a door that leads to the aunt’s old garden which is now overgrown and nearly dead. Working alongside Dickon, one of the servant’s brother, Mary intends to restore the garden to its former beauty. Also, while in the house she continues to hear crying every night and eventually discovers her ten-year-old cousin Colin who is kept confined to his room and can’t even walk. His windows are boarded up to keep out “spores” and he is convinced that he is ill, no thanks to the imperious housekeeper Mrs Medlock.

I mentioned that this was a kids’ movie and you can kid yourself all you want and say anything for kids has to be crappy but I think this speaks for itself. When watching it back, I expected much of the same stuff that you got in A Little Princess (also by the same author) with some overacting and some general over-the-top filmmaking techniques that would only work in a kids’ film. What I didn’t expect was for this film to be so atmospheric and brilliantly acted. You almost do forget you’re watching a kids’ film at times. Anyway I will give special mention to the score which was done by Zbigniew Preisner and is amazing. We get some eerie music at the start, especially when Mary arrives at Misselthwaite and some cool slow piano themes when she’s exploring the house. But then that gets contrasted with some of the softer and more mellow music that plays in the garden, particularly when it shows spring is coming.

The visuals for this film are equally as amazing as the score. The entire exterior of Misselthwaite Manor is incredible to look at, filmed at Fountains Hall and some of Allerton House, both in Yorkshire. We see a real gothic mansion to start off with and Mary’s room is especially creepy. The filmmakers have also decorated the interior with various tapestries of King Edward VI of England, a young boy king who died very young, an obvious parallel for Colin’s condition. Mary’s room is also decorated with some nice tapestries of the famous “Hunt For The Unicorn” which also appeared way back in The Last Unicorn. Then we have the garden itself; it is nothing short of beautiful to look at. It is easily the most beautiful garden I have ever seen and a big round of applause can go to the filmmakers who built the entire thing from scratch. Both the scenes in winter and spring where we see the garden are nice to look at, for different reasons. The garden in the winter looks almost like a graveyard, lifeless and deserted. The garden in the spring, on the other hand, is meant to be beautiful and attractive to show how the children have built a new life for themselves. The costume designs deserve credit as well since they’re so detailed you can make out the ML initials on Mary’s stockings when she is being dressed in the opening.

We have three child actors as our main cast in this film and they are all extraordinary at leading the film. Kate Maberley plays the sour and “contrary” Mary and she does brilliantly. We see her cold and sour at the start, the girl who didn’t know how to cry, and it’s interesting to see her slowly soften and become a more friendly girl while still keeping some of her old spark. Hayden Prowse plays Colin, looking suspiciously like a young Tom Felton, and is a great counter-point to Mary as the spoiled and frail young master. His tantrums are hilarious, even when they shouldn’t be, but you do feel for him and grow to like him eventually. Andrew Knott plays Dickon with his strong Yorkshire accent as the opposite to Colin, a wild and playful child who is also a little mischievous. In the adult line up we also have the legendary Maggie Smith playing Mrs Medlock. She gives a very strong performance as woman made of iron, strict and bossy but still deep down trying to do what’s best for Colin. The final scenes are some of the best we ever see from Medlock. 

As you all know I’m a big fan of montages, except when they’re overdone of course (*cough* My Sister’s Keeper) and the montage of spring coming to Misselthwaite is beautifully done. We see the uncle leaving in his carriage in the middle of the night, with Mary watching out of the window, and then we get some lovely sweeping shots of the moors and the garden slowly coming back to life. The scenes in the garden are also beautifully designed, especially when Colin sees it for the first time. It’s also really the first time we see the full thing so our reactions are pretty much the same as Colin’s. There’s a really dramatic scene where Mary has a dream about her mother. She sees herself as a young infant in the garden with her mother in front of her, who then runs away, symbolising how her mother was never really there for her. I shudder to think at what the filmmakers must have done to get that kind of reaction out of that young girl.

So there you have it. If someone tells you that all movies for kids are lame then give them this to watch and show that movies made for kids can be just as impressive as others. That’s not to say that some movies made for kids can’t be bad. In fact there are a lot of them out there that are so overly patronising and overdone that they’re just impossible to watch back. A film like this manages to be appealing to kids while giving adults something to be impressed by, like the great score and pretty visuals, and of course the good acting from the children. I wouldn’t say that A Little Princess could be watched back by adults unless the nostalgia goggles were on or they were a big fan of the book, but I’d happily show this to any adult because there is a lot to be impressed about. I’m going to end this entry with a quote from Colin: “I have spoken, all depart and follow Bobby on Twitter” (he was a very advanced child).

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