The Secret Garden

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The Secret Garden (1993)
Dir. Agnieszka Holland

In Holland’s estimation an individual comes into being through their physical interactions within spaces and with others rather than in a series of private chemical moments. The Secret Garden navigates private lives as they come to exist through their entrance into public spaces, and physical environments as they merge poetically with the subjectivities they are activated by. Neither of these things, and no individual, could exist without their public expression. The Secret Garden‘s disruption of subject/object borders is ultimately played for the kind of Romantic epiphany familiar to anyone who has read Wordsworth or spent five minutes with a European landscape painting from the period (Dickon’s face healthy and red through the dirt contrasted with Colin’s sickly sour-milk aristocracy), but not before the director has underscored each move toward this as a physical transgression in a haunted, hostile space.

Holland has Deakins draw from Gothic and arthouse cinema to render environments that are emphatically uneasy- the moors have the ghostly tones of Vilmos Zsigmond’s damp naturalism, the garden has the broken and forgotten qualities of a Tarkovsky film, and the house has shadows that morph and stalk, floorboards that stink, and tapestries sodden with the dust of everyone who ever lived there. The Secret Garden always scared the shit out of me as a kid, and returning to it twenty years later I can see why- there is visibly no effort made on anyone’s part to dilute its environmental horror for the under 14 demographic. The director differentiates the film from those other adult works in the way that its human subjects traverse these dreadful environments: it is frighteningly haptic. The tapestries with stark faces that are always awake and watching are pulled back by Mary because they hide secret doors in the haunted house that Mary wishes to use, long wet grass and ponds with black water and broken moldy bricks and deformed eroded fountains are summoned and then walked through and ignored by Mary on her way to rummage in the dirt. Deakins would go on to apply a similar sensitivity to zoning in The Village, but in that film everyone knows to take a breath before discounting custom and transgressing into a new world. Andrei learned to disregard these boundaries over the course of Nostalghia, but this signified his deterioration into a muck of bones and disfigured memories to be devoured by the earth’s geothermal processes.

Mary seems entirely unaware that she should be afraid, and Holland stands back in admiration without interfering in her exploration of the world. The character’s journeys are shortened over the course of the film as her sense of place becomes more confident- the first few times Mary wanders to the garden we receive image after image watching her do it, with each including a landmark so that we are able to understand the film’s geography. With every return trip this pattern is repeated but an image is removed, and before long we no longer even see her walk through the boundary into the garden. Critically this is from the point that she tells others about it- when it is no longer a secret it becomes real and when it becomes real it begins to alter previously held notions of reality. The prison-like manor becomes like a grim theme park housing a slumber party, and the run-down garden bursts with life and the surreal arrival of animals. There is a conflict here in which Holland wants us to break the rules and discard ceremony and fall in love, but through the horror and abuse the final act’s literalised Eden can’t help but ring hollow. Of course because of the film’s Gothic embrace of instability, as spaces and perspectives intertwine, it is up for anyone to decide how much of it is literal and how much is imagined.

The Secret Garden is designed to be watched as a child who will see the magic and as an adult who will see the fear as they are both reasonable ways of approaching a space if the question of a neatly external space is for the child/adult an impossibility.

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