One of the most warmly regarded family films of the 90s, Agnieszka Holland's adaptation of Francis Hodgson Burnett's classic novel, The Secret Garden, was justly acclaimed for a clutch of excellent performances, haunting cinematography (from Roger Deakins) and a firm grasp of the novel's Gothic sensibility. Kate Maberly stars as Mary, orphan of somewhat neglectful parents who are killed in an earthquake in India. Adopted by her hunchbacked Uncle Craven (John Lynch) and taken into his brooding Yorkshire manor, Mary uncovers more than just a few skeletons in the closet when she discovers the locked, secret garden of the title, and her invalid cousin, Colin (Heydon Prowse). The standout performance though unsurprisingly comes from Maggie Smith as the tyrannical yet repressed housekeeper, Mrs Medlock.
Providing the score was Zbigniew Preisner, a self-taught Polish composer best known to Western audiences for contributing to director Krzysztof Kieslowski's Three Colours trilogy. Despite Preisner's relative anonymity, The Secret Garden turns out to be an unexpected joy, utterly gorgeous from start to finish, the level of clarity and feeling rivalling that of the composer's more famous Hollywood contemporaries.
Preisner's sense of musical compassion is outstanding, weaving a multitude of themes and motifs around an irresistible sense of bucolic Englishness, sensitively performed by the Sinfonia Varsovia. Much of the score is dominated by an overtly "classical" sound, with particular and lengthy emphasis going on strings, but that's not to suggest it feels cold. Far from it; The Secret Garden is a score with a big heart, one which comes to bloom like an English Rose in springtime. The exquisite musical rendering of both the English characters and their blossoming relationships is wonderfully authentic for a non-English composer, whose mindset is presumably as far removed from said conventions as possible.
Not that you'd ever know from the quality of the music. It actually starts with another kind of ethnic flavour, Indian to be precise, in "Main Title", utilising a multitude of percussive and wind instruments to represent Mary's old life. It builds to a quite cacophonous fervour before it's cut short, bringing her tale to English shores in "Leaving the Docks", where a heartbreaking woodwind opening gives way to a hauntingly expressive piano solo, capturing the expansive Yorkshire surroundings and the character who represents them, Dickon (Andrew Knott).
The score is a slow burning one, introducing individual motifs for specific characters and emotional situations. "Mary Downstairs" cuts to the heart of Hodgson Burnett's sense of Gothic repression, a moody piece for austere piano that captures Mary's initial character brilliantly. "Skipping Rope" by contrast portrays her emotional unveiling, an ebullient piece for plucked strings. Later on, Preisner connects both Mary and Lord Craven's estranged characters through the sense of threatening ominousness in "Craven Leaves, "Craven's Return" and "Craven to the Garden", characters that will eventually be bridged musically by the score's gentle emergence into shimmering redemption in the climax.
The first glimmer of hope comes in "First Time Outside", carrying the Dickon theme onto a simply divine violin solo that's the equivalent of stepping into warm sunshine on a winter's day. The chimes and piano in "Entering the Garden" meanwhile is a set-up for the heavenly theme for the garden itself, opening up in glorious fashion in "Walking Through the Garden" and "Awakening of Spring". Combining the heart-rending sound of the Cracow Boys Choir with the gentle orchestra, it's as beautiful as film music gets, a magnificently redemptive sound that casts the first warm glow over the score. "Mary and Robin Together" passes the emphasis once again onto violin and winds, a lovely little sub-theme mimicking bird-song that fuses with the garden theme in "Awakening of Spring" to awe-inspiring effect.
The score is eventually located though on the flowering bond between Mary, Colin and Craven, utilising the stylistics of the Garden Theme (if not the theme itself) to indicate its power in bringing the characters together. The hushed, breathtaking "Colin Opens His Eyes" brings in this idea fully for the first time, strings, piano and violin ushering in a lovely boy soprano vocal, as opposed to the full choir. This theme is carried to terrific heights in "Colin Loves Mary" and the climactic double whammy of "Colin Senses Craven" and "Happily Ever After", where Preisner pulls out all the stops in providing an overwhelming sense of closure and satisfaction.
Tracing it back to the start, it's a superbly wrought journey made by the composer, moving from brooding melancholy to tentative beauty and eventual catharsis. Much like a garden itself, the product which eventually blooms is a thing of rare beauty. Tragically overlooked, it's truly one of loveliest scores of the decade, a hidden gem that deserves and demands more attention.
This gem of a score is thankfully still available on Amazon, and it can be found at these links Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com. Pianists may also be interested in the Zbigniew Preisner Sheet Music Book available from Music Room which has 2 tracks from "The Secret Garden".
Francis Hodgson Burnett's novel "The Secret Garden" has been adapted for the stage as a musical. The musical is not directly related to the TV show with its music described above. It has been written by Marsha Norman with music by Lucy Simon. "The Secret Garden" musical will first be presented to the public in Edinburgh during the Christmas 2010 season. Then in 2011 the show is due to move to Canada. For more information see the website: www.secretgardenmusical.co.uk.