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DVD SAVANT

The Secret Garden


The Secret Garden
Home Vision Entertainment
1975 / Color / 1:33 flat full frame / 210 min. / Street Date July 12, 2005 / 24.95
Starring Sarah Hollis Andrews, John Woodnutt, David Patterson, Jacqueline Hoyle, Hope Johnstone, Tom Harrison, Andrew Harrison
Cinematography John Baker
Production Designer Guthrie Hutton
Film Editors Albert Bourne, Monica Mead
Music by Ronald Binge and Carl Nielsen
Dramatized by Dorothea Brooking from the book by Frances Hodgson Burnett
Produced by Dorothea Brooking
Directed by Katrina Murray

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

There are at least eleven filmed versions of The Secret Garden and several invented sequels; Frances Hodgson Burnett's classic children's story is considered one of the best ever written. This 1975 BBC version is serialized in seven half-hour episodes and is said to follow the book almost incident by incident, retaining much of the key dialogue. Lovers of the book may find that extremely satisfying, as the performances and serious approach to the novel are to be commended. For many, the series will be slow, talky and lacking in dramatic high points - the price, perhaps, of fidelity to the story.

Synopsis:

Little Mary Lennox (Sarah Hollis Andrews) is orphaned in India and brought back to live with a wealthy but mysterious Uncle Archibald Craven (John Woodnut) in his manor house on the moors. At first contrary and troublesome, she warms to the servants and eventually discovers the secret of the house's mysterious walled garden, along with the source of the crying she hears in the lonely halls -- crying that the servants keep telling her is the wind, or a scullery maid with a toothache.

This version of The Secret Garden has reserve and respect to spare. The story is presented so delicately, it generates little excitement. Sarah Hollis Andrews is okay as the girl who turns the Craven household upside down, but she never establishes a strong personality -- she seems to be straining to act like a brat in early scenes while not really reaching any heights of wonder when various household "miracles" start to happen. Nobody is expecting the screen to be lit up with the likes of Hayley Mills, but there aren't any emotional fireworks. We don't care all that much what happens to little Mary Lennox.

The pacing is deliberate. Each episode begins with a reverential title sequence backed by quaint but generic music. In the standard television practice, exteriors are shot on film, probably in 16mm, and interiors and interior-exterior sets are recorded on videotape. The direction is undistinguished, with all sets and exterior settings seen from stock viewpoints. Mary's new home doesn't seem sinister or boring, and her magical adventures never become particularly magical. All of that content is delivered in the dialogue. Key scenes stand out, like Mary short-circuiting the hysterics of the spoiled 'invalid' Colin (David Patterson) by throwing a protest tantrum of her own. But most of the character interaction lacks dramatic sparks.

Much in the show's favor is its authentic language. The locals talk in an interesting dialect, carried by the kindly groundskeeper Ben Weatherstaff (Tom Harrison) and Mary's young friend Dickon (Andrew Harrison), who grows vegetables and keeps a menagerie of cuddly animals.

The show is also to be commended for staying faithful to the class-conscious cultural context of the story. Showing young Mary and Colin ordering servants about and calling them lazy pigs doesn't encourage us to like them very much, but it is surely truthful to history. Both pampered children learn to say "thank you" and stop being abusive not because they've learned anything, but because they've overcome their personal frustrations. Even at the end, little Colin is behaving in a completely imperious manner while the locals and servants living in poverty seem delighted that the little rich kids are without undue troubles. Not one of them feels moved to murder the little brats; even the standard stuffy housekeeper is happy to see the young nobles excercising their privileges.

Curiously, with three and a half hours at its disposal, The Secret Garden ends too abruptly. We never see the master's full reaction to the blooming of his hidden garden, or come to terms with the fact that he's just spent ten years trying to bury a perfectly healthy boy out of sorrow for his lost wife. Worse, after a fairly lame 'hymn of happiness' our heroine-catalyst isn't given even a moment to savor her full accomplishment. The appeal of this particular The Secret Garden has to be in its complete storyline - otherwise it isn't all that distinguished.


Home Vision Entertainment's DVD of The Secret Garden is a reasonable encoding of a television production that would be a difficult subject to restore. The color in the videotaped scenes is muted, while the filmed sections were obviously transferred to video as well, and suffer under the technical limitations of the time. The lush English countryside never looks particularly green and the range of contrast is on the shallow side, so there's little drama in the images themselves.

The handsome packaging includes three photos that look better than the images on screen. A profile of the famous author (who also wrote Little Lord Fauntleroy) is included on an insert card. A promo for Home Vision's BBC version of The Chronicles of Narnia is included as well.


On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, The Secret Garden rates:
Movie: Fair +
Video: Good -
Sound: Very Good
Supplements: short text essay on the author
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: July 27, 2005





DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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