"The Secret Garden," the beloved childhood book by Frances Hodgson Burnett comes alive on the big screen once again — but with a few updates for 2020.
This adaptation unfolds through the perspective of orphaned Mary Lennox (Dixie Egerickx), as she discovers and nurtures the titular neglected, magical garden — a metaphor for growing her own relationships and discovering adventure, creativity and independence. Director Marc Munden moved the time period forward from the Edwardian era to the recovery years post-World War II. After Mary's affluent parents die of cholera during the Partition of India, the 10-year-old is sent to the cold, foggy moors of England to live with her widowed uncle Archibald (Colin Firth), who still mourns his wife Grace, the twin sister of Mary's mother, Alice. Her new life in roaming the dark hallways of the near-empty palatial estate proves much different than her lavish but neglected childhood spent in India, with servants at her beck and call.
As Mary opens up to her new surroundings and explores the beautiful, expansive nature around her, viewers also become immersed in saturated colors and fantastical flora and fauna. The larger-than-life nature scenes were actually filmed in real gardens around the United Kingdom, including the subtropical Trebah Garden in Cornwall and hidden verdant terraces of Iford Manor Estate in Somerset, plus the mysterious moors of North Yorkshire.
Watch Mary's costumes closely, too, as her Peter Pan-collared dresses and embroidered pinafores also gradually bloom with delicate florals, winding vines and fluttering butterflies, thanks to the ingenious work of costume designer, Michele Clapton (who, so far, has racked up five Emmys for her stunning work on "Game of Thrones" and one more for the first season of "The Crown.")
"I love the role the garden plays all through the story," Clapton explained in the production notes. "It was really important to me that instead of using special effects, we actually made costumes that change. It was a nightmare at times deciding when the next bit should grow, but it was so exciting that three scenes later you could see something had changed in Mary's costume."
With the help of principal embroiderer Michele Carragher, Mary's own sartorial garden evolves as she makes new friends with stray doggo Hector and maid Martha's nature-whisperer little brother, Dickon (Amir Wilson), plus brings her sickly cousin Colin (Edan Hayhurst) out of his shell. Clapton followed her "bright, springlike" nature-inspired palette, including greens, blues and the almost color-changing lavender of her trusty wool coat, which coordinated with Grant Montgomery's production design.
Clapton also enjoyed the creative freedom of playing with the time jump, which helped build Mary's backstory. "I really loved the '20s and '30s, so I liked this idea to almost make [her costumes] a non-time, more magical," she explains, on a call. Mary, accustomed to being dressed and waited on by servants in India, was left to her own devices at the manor, with only two loyal staff remaining — and none interested in pampering her.
Clapton imagined that Mary discovered a trove of her mother's clothing from earlier decades and began dressing herself, unsupervised. "It gave her such artistic license so that she chose what she wore, rather than being told what to wear. So she becomes more and more eclectic in her dress sense," says Clapton.
The costume designer was also intrigued by Munden's mention of the Kibbo Kift, an English youth movement, celebrating the outdoors, fitness and world peace. Founded by artist John Hargrave in 1920, the group made their own rugged, arty and wildlife-referential costumes. Clapton imagined the once-carefree, nature-loving Alice as a member of the group. (At one point, Mary dons a blue blazer with a fox badge on the front pocket; Hargrave referred to himself as "White Fox.") Mary's forced independence also gave Clapton flexibility to allow for the practicality of an inquisitive child climbing walls, running through prickly terrain and playing in her secret garden in the late '40s, when women really didn't wear pants.
"Because she's never dressed herself, I love the idea that she keeps her pajama bottoms on under her skirt," Clapton says of Mary's little "jumper-leggings," adorably and effortlessly layered under embroidered pinafores and smocks. "We wanted her to create her own style, really."
The overall inventive mismatch also illustrated Mary feeling "disconnected" and untethered to her new surroundings.
Mary's yellow butterfly-covered dress (above) also comes alive through multiple iterations, which was Clapton's pitch to Munden: The butterflies begin as a flat print, evolve into appliqués fluttering on Mary's shoulder and culminate in CG-helped butterflies flying into the air.
"It was just that idea that the garden just opened up, and made anything possible," she says.
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Mary connects with her mother Alice and aunt Grace through a discovery of a glamorously grand dressing room and walk-in closet at Archibald's house. Flashbacks show the twin sisters in happier times, giggling and running through the manse wearing romantic bias-cut white gowns (below) intricately embroidered with silver and gold nature-themed beading.
"We always tried to make them arty people who lived a slightly freer, different life," says Clapton, who also used the beaded patterns — which was a "really big undertaking" — to illustrate the sisters' love of and connection to the garden.
When Mary first discovers the room, she does the logical thing and plays dress up in Grace's ivory evening gown and matching tasseled cape. "It was an adult's dress, but we just had to make sure that she could get it on quite easily within the scene and that she didn't trip on it," says Clapton. "I always love it when kids wear adult clothing — I remember as a child, I always wore my mother's clothes — and it brings you closer to that person."
Clapton and her team also helped props and production design supply the dressing room with luxurious silky, beaded gowns in "silvers and pearl greens" to fill racks and display on dress forms. The whole scene creates a "dreamlike quality," which Mary and audiences alike experience.
The effort also gave Clapton and her team an opportunity to enjoy their own playground activity of sorts. "We actually had a competition," she reveals. "It was really great fun. Actually, we did that on 'The Crown,' as well, when the Queen goes to her first fashion show."
Understandably, Clapton's time on set is packed: designing and overseeing the custom-builds of an entire film's costume closets, from Mary's little boots to Dickon's feather-embellished balaclava and his own blooming wardrobe. However, she did challenge herself with a personal, hands-on assignment: Clapton turned an "old '20s smock" with pretty pomegranate prints into a dressing gown for Mary.
"I re-cut it and I stitched it all by hand. That was my project," she says. "[My team] all laughed and said, 'You always have to do something.' It's like, 'Yes, I always just have to do one thing.'"
Although, Clapton managed to fit in another with Mary's adorable blue beret (top) — or actually three, if you count the multiples — which she made out of wool fabric she had on hand. "The little striped band was selvedge off another piece of fabric, so we were really using everything we could on [the costumes]," she says. We didn't put anything to waste."
It's fitting that filming a classic story about self-discovery and the importance of family and friendship entailed cultivating a figurative community garden behind-the-scenes, too.
"We just all joined in," says Clapton. "We had a little studio, and every single one of us, printed and painted and did whatever we could to create the costumes."
'The Secret Garden' premieres on Friday, Aug. 7 on VOD.