A young British girl leaves her home in India to escape the cholera, and stays with her reclusive uncle and his staff in his English countryside manor. On one of her many lonely walks around the grounds, she discovers a secret garden and makes it her mission to learn as much as she can about it with the help of a young boy, Dickon.
Frances Hodgson Burnett's classic tale of a neglected child's discovery of an abandoned garden has been dramatised in films, TV serials, even a Broadway musical. Despite its Edwardian quaintness and gentleness there is evidently an enduring appeal in the story.
Mary Lennox (Maberly) is a pinched, unhappy child whose secret tending of a forbidden, overgrown, walled garden under the tutelage of country boy Dickon transforms her and the lives of those around her. As the peevish Mary, Maberly is excellent, as is Prowse as her confined cousin Colin, Polish director Agnieszka Holland, in her English-language debut eliciting fine performances from her young performers. Maggie Smith does her fussy spinster act as housekeeper and John Lynch is suitably tortured as the Lord of the gloomy Yorkshire manor where Mary is dumped after the death of her parents in India.
The production design is required to be as much of a star as any of the actors and Academy Award winner Stuart Craig has obliged with a gothic, appropriately oppressive house in a Bronte landscape that contrasts with Mary's light, life-filled garden. The problem, however, is that the film is not as enchanting as it should be (an effect achieved in the 1949 Margaret O'Brien-Dean Stockwell version through the trick of bursting from black-and-white into colour), because Holland has kept it unsentimental. What magic there is comes from the odd, ritual behaviour of the children in a nice demonstration of the life-enhancing miracle of nature.
With a great set designed by an Oscar winner as well as a cast that includes Maggie Smith and of course, based on a children's favourite, it's hard to see where this could go wrong. It does entertain, but it manages to hold back on the sentimentality that you're left with nothing at all.