The Secret of Moonacre, Natasha McElhone, Ioan Gruffudd

Is it still half term? The friendly Lollipop Lady down my road still wasn’t there today, so I assume so.

And that’s good news for all young pre and early teen girls because those of you with access to Sky Movies, might want to check out The Secret of Moonacre premiering on the Premiere channel today.

One of my favourite books as a kid (and one of JK Rowling’s apparently) was Elizabeth Goudge’s The Little White Horse. It’s the story of a young girl called Maria Merryweather, and is set in a magical place called Moonacre Valley – somewhere in the heart of the English countryside. It’s a while since I’ve read the novel, but just thinking about it causes my imagination to conjure up vivid images of dark forests, salmon pink geraniums, a fairytale bedroom, waves that turn into galloping horses, an underground home, and a leonine dog.

That’s the thing about children’s storybooks – when you’re a kid their colourful tales play out magically in your imagination, and become increasingly vivid with every reading (and let’s face it, favourite books are read a lot when we are infants).

But conjuring up these strong and subjective pictures of our favourite tales can pose a problem when those storybook favourites are made into films. Sometimes the film remains faithful to the author’s work and that can be successful, but, at other times, when a beloved text is interfered with,  precious key scenes from your subjective memory are invaded by imposters and new narratives are introduced that completely transform the shape of the story you know and love – and that’s not so good.


So how does The Little White Horse translate into its movie version The Secret of Moonacre?

The film begins with promise. Dakota Blue Richards is a perfect Maria Merryweather, a young, delicate English rose type, dressed in appropriate period costume. Following the death of her father, Maria is forced to leave her London home and move to the rural Moonacre Valley to live with her uncle. She is  accompanied by her companion Miss Heliotrope  (a visually spot on Juliet Stevenson).  So far so good – this opening sets the scene well, and captures the essence of the original tale. But, during the horse-drawn carriage transit from city to country, Miss Heliotrope lets out a big belch, and I am faced with my first disappointment.

For me, the overriding appeal of The Little White Horse novel was its understated charm. A bit like The Secret Garden, it’s a gentle story, beautifully and colourfully told and packed with wonder. As soon as this film version presented me with Miss Heliotrope’s burp, my fears were that it was going to step over this fine line in a bid to entertain its target young audiences.

The Secret of Moonacre, Dakota Blue Richards, Juliet Stevenson, Michael Webber

And I was not wrong. The novel is not in your face. It suggests a world of mystery and magic through the use of polarised nature themes, such as night and day, sun and moon, male and female, land and sea, blurring the lines between fantasy and reality by drawing upon ancient legends, and mythical beasts such as the lion and the unicorn  (surely sun and moon symbols here?)

While The Secret of Moonacre does present a few visually enchanting scenes (Maria’s magical moon-gazing bedroom, Loveday’s sensual cavelike abode, and eccentric cook Marmaduke Scarlet’s colourful kitchen), it mainly delivers a bolshy, over the top, over-dramatic take on Goudge’s enchanting tale, altering the plot development considerably in places, as well as changing character names and characteristics as well as key relationships.

And, judging by the movie’s emphasis on action and CGI effects, I suspect that Goudge’s book was considered too subtle for today’s young audiences. This is a shame for fans of the book like me, but I have to argue that as a stand alone film, it does work reasonably well.

Natasha McElhone as the lovely Loveday gives the best performance, in my opinion, and Dakota Blue Richards as Maria is the perfect heroine. The Robin character from the book is virtually unrecognisable in the film (played by Augustus Prew), and bad guys the Coeur de Noir clan (Coq du Noir in the book – I guess that change makes sense!) are too over the top to be evil, especially Tim Curry who would have been much better in the role of Maria’s uncle Benjamin Merryweather instead of the bland Ioan Gruffudd.

If you love the book you’ll be curious to see this, but be prepared for disappointments as well as one or two delights. And, if you haven’t read the original text, then give the film a go – it’s certainly an entertaining adventure and is packed with visual delights.


The Secret Moonacre is showing on Sky Movies Premiere on Friday 16th April at 3pm, and at various times over the next week.

To check out other films showing today on UK TV, click here.