The first time Agnieszka Holland read The Secret Garden, she was seven years old and in circumstances as far from Frances Hodgson Burnett's classic account of an English childhood idyll as can be imagined.

She, her younger sister and their parents lived in a drab flat in Warsaw during the Stalinist era. Her father, a Jewish journalist, had seen most of his family wiped out in the Warsaw ghetto. Her Catholic mother, a veteran of the anti- Nazi resistance, had witnessed the horrors of the Warsaw ghetto uprising as a 15- year-old freedom fighter.

The Secret Garden had been one of her mother's favourite books. 'It was Poland in the Fifties and the book wasn't in print, but my mother looked in the used book stores and found it for me,' Ms Holland says. 'I remember the cover very well: it was a well-worn book, read many times. I had a fever and she started to read it to me that evening. During the night, I lit the light and finished it by myself.'

Now that dog-eared book has been turned into a hit movie. At the age of 46, Ms Holland, long a director of well-regarded art-house films such as Europa, Europa and Olivier, Olivier, has joined the mainstream. The Secret Garden, which cost just dollars 18m ( pounds 12m) to make, has already taken in excess of dollars 30m in the United States. The same American audiences who have been flocking to Steven Spielberg's Jurassic Park are now being seduced by a gentle story of the English countryside whose main non-human star is a robin, and whose major dramatic moment is the blooming of a garden.

How does a Polish director whose previous films have dealt with such subjects as the Holocaust steer as deft a path through the territory of English country houses, little invalid children, wicked housekeepers, bath chairs and blighted rose gardens? 'The book has much more universal appeal than just the particular situation of Victorian England,' Ms Holland says. 'The garden, the unloved child, the struggle between death and light - it's a story full of symbols.'

Ms Holland is a tiny woman, dressed head to toe in black. She wears no make-

up and black-rimmed glasses, with the back of her hair gathered artlessly in a short ponytail. The impression would be austere, were it not for the frequent shy smile. The unassuming, even fragile, appearance is, however, misleading. Agnieszka Holland may not look like the kind of woman who can hold her own against the Hollywood ogres but her career has been a struggle that even by the standards of the film business has been extraordinary.

Since discovering that she was half- Jewish at the age of five, after children taunted her at school, she has had to fight the virulent anti-Semitism that has always been a condition of life in Poland. Her father had renounced his religion after escaping to the Soviet Union during the war. Ms Holland reacted against his fanatical Communism by secretly becoming a Catholic. Despite this, her Jewishness has, she says, 'been the most complicated problem of my life'.

When she was 13, her father was denounced as a spy and a Zionist and died after jumping - it was said - from the window of his apartment while it was being searched by the secret police. On holiday at the time, Ms Holland first learnt of his death from the obituary column of a Warsaw paper. 'It stays with you all your life,' she says. 'I felt very guilty because I hadn't been very nice to him.'

Her father had kindled her love of cinema by taking her to see the films of Andrzej Wajda, as well as those of Kurosawa, Fellini and many English directors.

But because she shared his name, she was banned from entering the leading Polish film school, at Lodz. 'Paradoxically,' she shrugs, 'if you were strong enough to see the injustice and rebel internally, the system made it easier for you. It made the world black and white; it made you feel courageous. When the Communists fell, a lot of people who had lived in this way were unhappier than before. Anyway, Lodz is an awful city.'

Instead, she went to the Prague film school, just in time for the Prague Spring: 'It was a wonderful experience, like a carnival.' When the Russian tanks moved in, it was, she says, 'at first a prolongation of this carnival - a carnival of hate. Then very, very quickly it became terrible'.

At the age of 21, she was imprisoned for helping the underground press. She smiles at the memory. 'It was a very bad jail, I can tell you,' she says. 'I was terrified for the first two or three days, but even so I enjoyed the experience. In childhood, I had read not only The Secret Garden but also Russian literature about people in jail singing revolutionary songs.'

Sentenced to 15 months but released after just six weeks, she returned to Poland to work with Andrzej Wajda. But each screenplay she submitted to the authorities who supervised the film industry was rejected. 'I was still named Holland and I'd had a political trial,' she says. 'To make films you used state money and they didn't give it to dissidents.'

She could have taken the name of her husband, the film-maker Laco Adamik, and Wajda offered to adopt her. Wajda fought the authorities on her behalf and eventually her contributions to one of his scripts, Man of Marble, were accepted. Three years later, she had made three films of her own.

She was in Sweden when martial law was declared in Poland in December 1981. Her husband and daughter, then nine, were trapped in Poland. It was, she says, the most difficult period of her life. 'I went to France and tried to get my daughter out, but it took eight months. I went into hospital and the doctors told me I was dying. I think I was close to it. My life was broken and I was terribly unhappy. But it helped to have my daughter out.'

From Paris, where she is now based, she made a low-budget German film, Angry Harvest, and To Kill A Priest, about Father Jerzy Popieluszko, a Solidarity sympathiser murdered by the secret police in 1984, while David Puttnam was in charge of Columbia Pictures. But it was her handling of child actors in Europa, Europa and Olivier, Olivier that convinced Warner to let her direct The Secret Garden. Now she turns down an offer from Hollywood every week, reluctant to do another studio movie and submit to the 'big struggles' that accompany big money.

But after dealing with the bureaucrats of Eastern Europe, Hollywood must surely be child's play? Ms Holland smiles. 'In some ways it's similar,' she says. 'Every bureaucratic system is much the same. The principle is to share responsibility. It's difficult to know who can really take a decision and people are afraid to expose themselves. You really can smell the fear.

'With the Polish Communist bureaucrats, especially at the end, they had respect for creative people and people who had different opinions. Some of them hated us, but it was the hatred of the guilty.

'In Hollywood, they don't feel guilt. They are very, very pleased with themselves and the box office is God. The reason why American cinema is so flat is because the people involved have no respect for different people and different creative languages. You are only good if you are exactly the same as everybody else. If you create problems, you are feared.

'They take me because they want something different but they take me because they want to make me exactly the same. They want to cut my fingers off and put me in a box. My life will always be a struggle, I'm afraid.'

'The Secret Garden' opens on Friday nationwide.

(Photograph omitted)