`Secret Garden' Is A Lush Playground

Movie review

XXX 1/2 "The Secret Garden," with Kate Maberly, Heydon Prowse, Andrew Knott, Maggie Smith and John Lynch. Directed by Agnieszka Holland, from a screenplay by Caroline Thompson. Based on the book by Frances Hodgson Burnett. Alderwood, Aurora, Broadway Market, Everett Mall, Gateway, Kent, Kirkland Parkplace, Metro, Renton Village. "G" - Suitable for all ages. -------------------------------------------------------------------

Since its publication in 1911, Frances Hodgson Burnett's novel "The Secret Garden" has been a perennial family classic, defining "enchantment" for generations of readers.

Not counting a tepid 1987 TV adaptation, the book has been served well by the movies, first as a heartfelt 1949 version starring Margaret O'Brien, and now with this glorious new version that easily qualifies as one of the best films of 1993.

Produced by the same team responsible for "The Black Stallion," and directed by Agnieszka Holland - best known for "Europa, Europa" and an admirer of the novel since childhood - this welcomed return to the magical "Secret Garden" has the pedigree of genuine art and the timeless appeal of a story (adapted with a few noteworthy changes by "Edward Scissorhands" writer Caroline Thompson) that vibrates with contemporary resonance.

A metaphor for the nurturing powers of love, the story focuses on 10-year-old Mary Lennox (Kate Maberly), a dour British brat, orphaned while living in India, who is taken to live in Misselthwaite Manor, the bleak English mansion owned by her rarely seen uncle, Lord Craven (John Lynch), a widower heartbroken by the death of his wife.

Colin (Heydon Prowse), a 10-year-old cousin of Mary's, lies bedridden in a musty room. He is as spoiled and as self-pitying as Mary, who befriends the boy against the strict commands of the housekeeper Mrs. Medlock (Maggie Smith, in an impeccable performance).

Joined by Dickon (Andrew Knott), the kind-hearted brother of a manor servant, Mary and Colin dare to enter and rejuvenate a forgotten, walled-in garden on the manor grounds, said to be the place of Lady Craven's death and now a lifeless symbol of the sadness pervading every cranny of the manor.

It is this devotion, lavished upon something sorely unwanted, that makes the garden blossom into a healing sanctuary. With an emotional sweep worthy of Dickens, "The Secret Garden" becomes a place of magic.

While Holland may not have imbued the garden with the enchantment so evident in the book, she has sublimely captured the beauty of the garden itself. It offers a simple but overwhelming connection to the kind of paradise we must look harder to find.

While drawing superb performances from her young leads, Holland has masterfully contrasted the garden - a place where melodic robins seem almost conversant - with the dread of Misselthwaite, its oppression perfectly revealed in one shot of enormous guard dogs fighting on a shadowy stairwell.

And yet, no matter how accomplished Holland's work may be, "The Secret Garden" seems a doubtful candidate for drawing a family audience. Literate, stunningly designed and photographed, it has the air of something "good for you," which could drive children away.

Still, miracles occur in "The Secret Garden," and maybe they will in theaters as well.