Frances Hodgson Burnett’s Quietly Magical 1990s Revival

It’s been over a hundred years since turn-of-the-century author Frances Hodgson Burnett was a hip, happening commodity on the children’s literature circuit, but her work’s been perpetually floating around the cultural zeitgeist ever since. That’s mostly due to the ongoing popularity of Burnett’s 1911 novel The Secret Garden, which is constantly being adapted for stage, television, and silver screen for each new generation of young audiences. Just last year, a big-budget reworking of The Secret Garden passed through theaters like a fart in the wind, unnoticed by most audiences despite the source material’s apparently evergreen popularity. I didn’t bother with the 2020 version of The Secret Garden, mostly because the gaudy CGI & overbearing orchestral swells of the trailers looked like they were adding way too many bells & whistles to a story mostly loved for its sweetness in simplicity. Had the movie been a proper hit (something it never had a chance to accomplish, if not only due to the COVID pandemic’s across-the-board-kneecapping of theatrical distribution), it would not have surprised me that its CG Magic additions to the story were welcoming to a younger generation of kids who are used to that digital patina. For me, the latest Secret Garden movie’s release mostly served as a reminder that Burnett’s novels had another, earlier Cultural Moment when I was a kid, something I can’t help but regard as their best era of adaptation to date.

Way back in the ancient days of the mid-1990s there were two wonderful, beloved adaptations of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s most popular novels, both shot by A-list cinematographers. Of course, the decade saw just as many forgotten, mediocre film & television versions of The Secret Garden, A Little Princess, and Little Lord Fauntleroy as any other era in popular media, but there were two exceptional films that stood out among the dreck. The first (and most substantial) of the pair is 1993’s adaptation of The Secret Garden, directed by Agnieszka Holland and shot by industry legend Roger Deakins. Half a G-rated Gothic horror about haunted, lonely children and half gorgeous Technicolor nature footage, the 1993 Secret Garden is a tender, incredibly patient children’s classic that I should have caught up with sooner. Where the treacly, desperately whimsical trailers for the 2020 Secret Garden push the delicate magic of the source material past its breaking point, Holland’s interpretation is interested in the more cinematic magic of Mood. The protagonist is a “queer, unresponsive little thing,” a prideful young orphan known to her lower-class bunkmates as “Mary Quite Contrary.” Displaced from a life with servants & extravagant parties to a spooky mansion haunted by her depressive, reclusive uncle who can’t stand the sight of her, she’s a child who’s proud of her prickly, don’t-even-fucking-look-at-me exterior. The magic of the film is subtle, represented mostly in her environment’s transformation from a dark, moody estate with possible ghosts lurking in the shadows to a sunshiny, springtime garden that she collaborates on restoring with the fellow lonely children she meets in & around the surrounding moors. Watching her guarded personality bloom into openness & empathy along with time-elapsed photography of the blooming, lush garden as she makes her first genuine friends is beautifully, genuinely magical, something the film is confident in highlighting without much in the way of special effects – computerized or otherwise.

The 1995 adaptation of A Little Princess—directed by Alfonso Cuarón and shot by Emmanuel Lubezki—admittedly does indulge in some shockingly cheap, overstepping CGI, but it at least sequesters those images within its story-time fantasy sequences. The set-up of the story is much the same as The Secret Garden, with a once-wealthy British child being knocked down the ladder of class once she is orphaned, now forced to work as a servant at her boarding school or face a destitute life of homelessness. This is a film I actually remember seeing as a kid; it was Baby’s First Cuarón in fact, something I did not at all connect to my high school-love of Y Tu Mamá También until decades later. It follows a much more traditional, familiar fairy tale premise for a kids’ movie than The Secret Garden, but it still squeezes in some gorgeously artificial illustrations of The Ramayana (told as bedtime stories at the boarding school), with Lubezki doing his best possible precursor to The Fall, give or take some ill-advised mid-90s CGI. Outside those bedtime story fantasies, the real magic of A Little Princess is still fairly subtle & unstrained. Its thesis is that “All girls are princesses”, whether they’re a spoiled boarding school brat or the orphaned peasant who mops the floors and serves them breakfast. I can’t claim that the movie matches or exceeds the heights of Cuarón’s later, more critically lauded works, but that “Everyone’s a princess” sentiment clashes against the horrors of labor exploitation the protagonist stuffers in a way that really left an impression on me as a kid; the Ramayana fantasy sequences only underline the magic of that much more grounded, “realistic” frame story. The only glaring faults of the film is that the Ramayana demons should have been rendered in traditional stop-motion animation and the unavoidable fact that 1993’s The Secret Garden is by far the better film.

Since I haven’t seen the 2020 The Secret Garden and I’m only contrasting these films against its trailers, I can’t make any objective claims about their superiority as works of art. The two major 1990s adaptations of Burnett’s novels did make a lasting impression on the generation who grew up with them, though, whereas the most recent film seems to have been an instantly forgotten blip. In fact, most adaptations of Burnett’s work appear to be routine, disposable, going-though-the-motions children’s media tedium, which makes those two 90s films stand out as an exception to the rule. At the very least, they’re both commendable for the subtle, controlled way they accentuate the magic & the beauty of Burnett’s novels, which is a funny thing to be able to say about two films where children live in fairy tale castles and communicate with animals. It’s apparently very easy to cheapen & deflate that magic if you desperately push it to the forefront instead allowing it to quietly bloom.

-Brandon Ledet

Roma (2018)

In general, it’s always better for your mental health to not stress too much about what the Oscars and other awards & critical bodies inevitably get wrong. Awards are an excellent platform for exposing & advertising smaller, artsy-fartsy movies to a wider audience who typically only pay attention to Disney-scale franchise filmmaking for the rest of the year. Awards also direct the flow of production money as a result, making anyone who walks home with an Oscar statue a lot more likely to get their next creative project off the ground. It’s worthwhile, then, to celebrate the few films you do enjoy that receive awards attention and to ignore the omissions & snubs of films you feel should be held up on the same pedestal; the Academy and other awards bodes are rarely, if ever, going to get things “right.” Still, I often find myself getting worked up about these things (despite them being entirely out of my control) and this year’s Best Picture race is especially nerve-racking in its potential for disaster. In a reflection of the stubborn yet rapid changes in its voting body, the Academy has nominated exactly 50% Best Picture candidates I’d love to see recognized for their achievements in craft & their political thoughtfulness (BlacKkKlansman, The Favourite, Black Panther, Roma) and 50% nuclear meltdown levels of trash with the exact opposite effect (Bohemian Rhapsody, Green Book, Vice, A Star is Born). That potential for both elation & disaster is sure to make for an exciting nail-biter of a ceremony (if the event’s haphazard producers can pull their shit together long enough to even stage a ceremony). Of all the films I feel passionately about in that paradigm, though, the one I least expected to be pulling for so passionately is Roma. It’s far from an underdog in this year’s Best Picture race, yet it’s a film I feel exceedingly protective over given some of the absurdly regressive alternatives.

A semi-autobiographical memoir of Alfonso Cuarón’s childhood in privilege, Roma details the life, love, labor, and loss of a domestic worker in Mexico City, 1970. Economically chained to a life defined by labor and professionally pressured to put her live-in employer’s personal life above her own, an indigenous woman tends to the minute-to-minutes whims & demands of a wealthy white family in transition. The routine of domestic maintenance eats up her entire schedule from pre-dawn to bedtime and the rare moments where she finds tranquil peace are, without fail, interrupted by chaos: screaming children, earthquakes, fires, political violence, etc. Her employers – a married couple on the verge of divorce & their small army of bratty offspring – claim to love her as member of the family, but she’s treated more as a beloved pet or a trustworthy appliance than a human being. This dynamic is challenged when she becomes unexpectedly pregnant and her vulnerabilities & personal needs as a human being become increasingly unavoidable at the exact moment when the family structure is strained by a looming divorce. We don’t see much of our protagonist’s inner life reflected in her dialogue or moments of privacy (which are essentially non-existent). We come to know her instead through her physicality (as excellently performed by new-to-the-trade actor Yalitza Aparicio) – whether in the detailed maneuvers of her never-ending labor as a servant or in the body language of her quiet reactions as a powerless observer. That’s why it’s so emotionally impactful when she loudly confesses a carefully-regarded, devastating secret of great personal importance to her “family” of employers in a grand emotional climax. It’s even more impactful, then, to see that intimate human moment punctured by the family slipping right back into relying on her to fetch them snacks and to sweep up the ever-replenishing piles of dogshit, as if they hadn’t just shared in the heartbreak of one of the most vital members of the family.

Even before you soak in its attention to the microscopic details of domestic labor & the subtly policed boundaries of this particular live-in-maid dynamic, Roma is incredibly impressive as a feat in filmmaking craft. The crisp black & white cinematography and the epic scale of its cast of extras could cynically be perceived as an empty attempt to “elevate” domestic labor to the perceived prestige of Oscar Worthy filmmaking. The film is not pretentious or coldly distanced enough to fully justify that cynicism, however, as it’s packed with enough flaccid dicks, dogshit, and general pessimism about the routines & familial dynamic of this kind of labor to be dismissed as ingratiating or watered down. The camera often oscillates from left to right in a machine-life precision with complex choreography of the onscreen players (sometimes numbering in the hundreds) following along with its carefully paced ebb & flow. It’s a calculated back & forth movement, like a security camera on a timer, that doesn’t at first register as purposeful in any way other than purely showing off. However, when you consider the way that motion matches up with the punishing tide of the waves in its devastating emotional climax on the beach shore, its inclusion & repetition takes on a more satisfactory purpose. Even the solemn washing of dogshit into a courtyard drain that opens the film starts to feel like foreshadowing of the beach scene in retrospect, as the sudsy waves of the bucket water mechanically wash past the camera. It’s a motif that loudly echoes the consistency of the cycle the movie depicts – the engrained ebb & flow of a domestic worker’s daily chores as she’s pulled into the edges of the family circle then washed right back out again. The larger scale of the world outside only provides perspective for the intimacy of that dynamic, and the camera’s careful oscillation announces & reinforces the setting where the boundaries & patterns of that bond will ultimately be tested.

Roma might suffer slightly in its self-awareness of reaching for Great Cinema in every moment. However, it’s an admirable ambition that often leads to sharply memorable images: smoke-filled theatres, wall-mounted taxidermy, furniture shopping in the middle of a riot, the absurdity of wealth parodied in the tone of a luxury car commercial, etc. It might also be true that Cuarón’s guilt over being a wealthy brat isn’t the noblest inspiration for telling the story of someone once under his employ. Even then, the details of how that worker’s language is policed out of existence, how she’s pet on a pillow besides the couch like a lapdog, and how people who’ve lived in the same home with her for untold years don’t know her full name or birthday are damning & insightful in a way that reaches far beyond vanity or simplistic remorse. This is ambitious, heartfelt, precise, memorable filmmaking with scathing political intent & deep emotional hurt – the exact kind of achievement that, when nominated, feels like The Academy “getting it right.” I don’t mean to say that Roma winning the Best Picture Oscar this year is the only acceptable outcome, or even the ideal. Personally, my favorite picture in the race remains Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman, which is being regarded as a longshot despite the director’s longstanding prestige. It’s more that it’ll be a lot harder to stomach than usual if the Academy gets its wrong this year, given that the poorly slapped together political misfires Green Book & Bohemian Rhapsody both have a strong chance of winning instead of four vastly superior nominees. Long after the Oscars are over, Roma, BlacKkKlansman, Black Panther, and The Favourite will stand on their own as great, distinct, risk-taking art. I can still feel myself getting worked up about the likelihood of impending doom this Oscar season, though. I’m both excited by the possibility of great art like Roma getting some much-deserved recognition and also just ready to get this dogshit over with & move on.

-Brandon Ledet