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‘The Secret Garden’ (G)

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
August 13, 1993

If the latest version of "The Secret Garden" unearths a few inventions of its own, it bears its own, quiet charms. A haughty little British orphan named Mary, who lost her parents in India, is dispatched to her melancholic uncle's English home. When she finds a mysterious, locked up garden, she discovers a joyful refuge for herself, her spoiled, bedridden cousin Colin and a country lad called Dickon.

With pretty-pouty Kate Maberly as Mary, Heydon Prowse as a believably tortured Colin, and dependable Maggie Smith as the tight-lipped house servant who harasses both of them, this "Garden" is a pleasurable experience. It's certainly a breath of fresh air, amid this kid-movie climate of video-game adventures or baseball pictures full of chubby hellions saying "butt-breath."

What a pleasure -- and what a challenge for the filmmakers -- to come up with a movie that exists primarily on ambience, character interplay, English accents and subtle class differences. "Garden"-the-movie actually seems better suited for children capable of sustained concentration -- above the 8-year-old divide, say. However, at a recent screening of this movie, 4-year-old Ariana watched enrapt in her father's lap for most of the time, claiming afterwards to have enjoyed the experience.

This Warner Bros. project is an unusual teaming of director Agnieszka Holland (best known for "Europa, Europa," the torturous story of a Jewish boy posing as a Nazi in Hitler's Germany) and Caroline Thompson, screenwriter of "Edward Scissorhands" and "The Addams Family."

Neither collaborator seems maniacally faithful about Frances Hodgson Burnett's bedtimer, which could be a source of disappointment to the legions raised on this book. In fact, a great deal of this movie suggests a sort of "English Scissorhands," as Colin's father mopes lovelessly alone on a gothic estate of sculpted shrubbery and big empty rooms.

But the filmmakers retain the aloof rivalry between cousins Mary and Colin, as well as the priggishness of Mrs. Medlock -- which is enough of a conflict to carry the movie. Speaking of conflict, some things could scare the very young, from the permanent loss of parents to the cold-shouldered treatment of children by adults.

But the three children (including Andrew Knott as Dickon) create a new family of their own, with even the dire Mrs. Medlock shedding a tear at Colin's speedy recovery. The garden itself is a blooming opportunity that neither production designer Stuart Craig nor cinematographer Roger Deakins miss out on. They make this movie, filmed at various English locations, constantly beautiful -- even at its gloomiest.

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