FILM INTERVIEW / Just pushing up daffodils: Director Agniezka Holland is filming The Secret Garden. Mark Burman reports

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The Independent Culture
With a little help from her friends the director Agnieszka Holland is destroying a child's world. Squeezed into the Caligari-like confines of her bedroom is 10-year-old Kate Maberly, her crazily tilted surroundings shaken furiously by mechanical rockers. Holland is urging her to scream a little louder, which should be easy as stage-hands are hurling dirt, debris and enormous Madagascan cockroaches only inches away from her face.

This is the fourth version to be filmed of Frances Hodgson Burnett's children's classic, The Secret Garden, and the mechanically conjured earthquake is standing in for the less cinematic bout of cholera that, in the book, dispatches young Mary Lennox (Maberly) from India to the gothic confines of Misselthwaite Manor.

Burnett's turn-of-the-century tale has two thoroughly unattractive children at its centre. The recently orphaned Mary, the 'most disagreeable- looking child ever seen', and the hypochondriac Colin. With the aid of the wild child of the moors, Dickon, they revive an abandoned garden, undergoing major spiritual rebirth amid the shrubbery.

This is the Polish director's third successive journey into the world of childhood. But placed next to either of her double-barrelled offerings, the recently released Olivier, Olivier or the film that first brought her to Hollywood's attention, Europa, Europa, this outing seems positively idyllic.

'I was very tired of the big subjects - the dead, the war, the Jews, the communists - and I decided I wanted to spend one year in The Secret Garden. The book is very simple and in some ways sentimental, but I think it answers many hopes and anguishes that we have in our life; it's not cute. It's full of struggles between life and death, something that's interested me in all my films.'

Despite its gentle setting, The Secret Garden is Holland's biggest production to date and her first in English. Produced by Francis Ford Coppola's Zoetrope Pictures for Warner, the film features elaborate sets, special effects and a menagerie of animals, from robins to elephants.

'I feel a much bigger responsibilty than before. Not only because of the budget but because this is a children's classic. When you are doing a film for kids it is not for one season, you know, but 10 or 20 years.'

Munching carrots from a Styrofoam cup, Holland relaxes between set-ups, her tiny figure dwarfed by the fake splendour of Imperial India that opens the film. 'I didn't realise how important gardens are to the English. It's quite a cult here, like the French and food. That made me feel quite scared and uncomfortable but fortunately I have great collaborators.'

Holland's chief collaborator is the screenwriter Caroline Thompson. She is no stranger to the looking-glass world of childhood, having written both The Addams Family and Edward Scissorhands. In fact Thompson had been longing to work on the project since it was first announced 10 years earlier; for both women the book was a childhood favourite.

'It had imagery that I never forgot,' says Thompson. 'The metaphor of this huge dark house that has so many rooms that you can't even begin to explore, and the metaphor of the garden that has huge high walls, this safety where you can make the flowers grow. I am always surprised when I meet a man who encountered it as a little boy because it's about a girl child finding her path; all the metaphors are female.

'I think the romanticisation of childhood does a real disservice to children. I feel strongly that the world today is not made for children. I mean, my memories of childhood were that the table was too tall or the chair too large.

'Mary Lennox enters a world where everything is disproportionate to her; it doesn't want her and she doesn't want it. To find a place in that world is something that all children yearn for, so the book has that gift for kids - it tells them they can do it.'

For a generation of children weaned on the likes of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and kid vid, The Secret Garden may seem like something of a naive non-starter, entirely bereft of pop-up action, but then consider its impeccable credentials.

Both enviromentally and spiritually correct, its Edwardian moralising seems perfectly in tune with the concerns of the green, caring Nineties. The film's biggest special effect and real star, the secret garden of the title, does not spit fire or shoot lasers, instead it pushes forth crocuses and daffodils in a blaze of springtime fervour.

But special effect it is. Constructed largely on an outdoor set and partly supplemented with computer graphics and optical work, the garden has been set amidst the ruins of an old abbey adding to the melancholy of the film's early scenes. Both Holland and her crew have found its creation more taxing than minor earthquakes.

'The garden is the most difficult thing and I'm not sure yet how it will work,' says Holland. 'We want to show the richness, beauty and mystery of the natural. Everybody had their own secret garden during their childhood. Sometimes it was very small, perhaps in the corner of an apartment.

'I grew up in Warsaw after the war and it was full of ruins, and on the ruins were bushes and grasses. The ruins of Warsaw, a tragedy for my parents' generation, were for me a fantastic secret garden.'