Gilding the Lily

What movies get wrong (and right) about gardening.


So there I was muttering, “Fraud, fraud,” while watching Enchanted April.

It’s a charming movie that sets very few viewers to grumbling. Oppressed women leave cold, rainy 1920s England and proceed to find happiness, peace, and sunshine in a rented castle on the Italian coast.

My complaint wasn’t about the story line but about the fact that the movie’s Portofino, Italy, hillside garden was bursting with flowers that wouldn’t be blooming simultaneously. No garden in the real world would look like that—the blooms of high summer (roses, sunflowers, geraniums) right next to the flowers of April (daffodils, tulips, camellias). It’s garden fraud.

Obviously, a movie company’s greens wrangler trucked in numerous pots of flowers from a greenhouse, where they’d been forced to bloom out of season.

In our unfilmed real lives, at this low-light, bare-branch time of year, we look for comfort in flowery movies, and it’s pleasant to come in from the sleet to see some roses. Does it matter that a lot of movie gardens are shamelessly overdone and ridiculously tarted up? We are used to accepting artifice in other realms. The photographers from House Beautiful and Architectural Digest arrive with a designer who adds better lampshades and prettier pillows to the décor. Porn and fashion magazines airbrush away the imperfections of women’s bodies.

Those ideals might be meant to dazzle and inspire. But sometimes perfection leads to despair—damn, my house/complexion/garden will never look that good.

Thankfully, the film world has made progress on the garden-fraud front with the English movie of the moment, Atonement, which serves up a true-to-season summer garden, with a meaningful sense of incipient decadence. The foxgloves have partially gone to seed, the wisteria is over, and the roses on the arbor are drooping. One quibble is that the enormous place appears to have only one gardener, our hero, Cambridge-educated Robbie, seen pushing a wheelbarrow full of lavender (not proper summer work for such a learned fellow, even if he is the housekeeper’s son).

Has there ever been an authentic movie message about the work of gardening, wheelbarrows and pruners, hopes and dreams? Something that communicates that it’s difficult but satisfying, and that even if it doesn’t achieve perfection, it’s yours.

There is at least one movie that is actually about gardening— Greenfingers—but unfortunately it depicts the process in a misleading way. (Not to mention it’s probably the dumbest movie Helen Mirren was ever in; and certainly the sappiest one Clive Owen ever made.) In Greenfingers, British prison inmates find gratification (and time outside a cell) through creating a garden. The idea comes in part from a project run by the Horticultural Society of New York and the corrections department at Rikers Island.

As in Enchanted April, flowers from spring and summer zoom up together in the prisoners’ garden. Everything in that garden is a success right off the bat. This is counter to the lesson a real-life gardener quickly learns: When one thing is fading, another is coming into its own; when one thing is failing, another is succeeding or at least surviving. Granted, this process is hard to show in a movie.

“The best place to seek God is in a garden. You can dig for him there,” says the aged murderer with a heart of gold in Greenfingers. He’s stealing a line from George Bernard Shaw, as well as ringing a change on that syrupy, mistaken poem—”One is nearer God’s heart in a garden than anywhere else on earth.” (What is this wife killer doing, by the way, in a minimum-security prison?)

In another piece of horticulture cinema, 1993’s The Secret Garden, the perfect spring is easier to take because the director, like the book’s author, intended the garden as metaphor. Orphaned Mary Lennox unlocks a long-sealed gate and, with the help of magical Yorkshire lad Dickon, brings the walled garden of her dead aunt back to life. At the beginning of Mary’s work, there’s a late-winter moment that rings completely true—pushing back a tangle of dead weeds, she uncovers a thin green lily shoot.

In one of the DVD’s extra features, the producer says frankly that for the garden they were “after something unusual and not of this world.” There are swags of white roses no gardener could ever produce. Neither Mary nor Dickon is ever shown with a garden tool in hand. No shovel, no trowel. But the truly not-of-this-world feature is that Dickon comes into the garden with his tame deer and his pet goat! Given 20 minutes, those creatures would consume every rose and take the lilies down to nubs.

In a nod to reality, we learn that Ben, the gardener who’d been forbidden to enter the garden for the 10 years since the death of the lady of the manor, has been defying the lord’s orders and working in secret. Thus the children’s magic is built on the experienced gardener’s basic maintenance work.

When a movie director goes for over-the-top gorgeousness, he or she may have made an obvious Garden of Eden statement but has missed a chance to use a garden to make a point about character and status. In his version of Pride and Prejudice (2005), Joe Wright, also the director of Atonement, uses a front garden to underscore the disorganization of the Bennet family, especially Mrs. Bennet, who ought to be keeping the household in line, inside and out. There’s a little bit of green, but the main impression is of sheets drying overhead, mud, and chickens underfoot.

Our heroine, Elizabeth Bennet, travels from this disorder to Pemberley, the estate owned by Lord Darcy, the man she has rejected. (She’s been told he’s away, that she won’t bump into him.) The movie viewer gasps in admiration when sharing Elizabeth’s view out to the garden. We are stunned by the perfect lawn, the spouting fountain (what power is running the fountain back then, peasants on a treadmill?), and the finely sculpted hedges. If Darcy takes this good care of his hedges, she must be thinking, he could take really good care of me. The central message in this novel of women’s economic insecurity is that the man who owns this house and this garden is immensely rich.

If you own or work a plot of land, you are, like it or not, the director of a garden scene. Your garden reveals something of your income, your state of mind, your character, your taste. Even if that state of mind is “I don’t care much,” or “I care sporadically” (very common), or “I’m someone who hires a landscape service.”