Only the occasional cry of seagulls pierce the silence at Belle Fountain, a secluded country estate overlooking the chalky cliffs of Dover, which shelters an unusual array of individuals, each of them yearning for growth in its stifling environment. Here, Mrs. St. Maugham ( Edith Evans ) lives in contented bliss amidst the opulent facade of a well-ordered life. She is a regal dowager hearkening from an era of refinement - a time when two glasses were used for one wine.
Living with her is Laurel ( Hayley Mills ), her granddaughter, a precocious and slightly neurotic darling whom Mrs. St. Maugham feels is in need of yet another governess. The "poor helpless child" ran away from her mother after she chose to marry another man. Casting aside the reality of her mother's love, Laurel has hardened herself with an artificial maturity, relying on no one for comfort. Suppressing her emotions she is "plagued with the compulsion to burn the house down" and has an insatiable appetite for mystery. Together with their beloved manservant Maitland ( John Mills ) Laurel is collecting "The Great True British Crime Series". In her desire to rid herself of caregivers she undertakes to expose them...one by one. "Everyone has something in their past. Some dark and terrible secret, " she explains. "I find it out and tell it to my grandmother".
The haughty Mrs. St. Maugham dotes on the child incessantly and believes she is nurturing Laurel as fastidiously as she has her beloved garden; but her garden is growing in chalk. When Miss Madrigal ( Deborah Kerr ) arrives, without references, for the position of governess, Mrs. St. Maugham is willing to hire her solely on the basis that she was once put in charge of a garden. Her past, shrouded in mystery, proves to be a challenge to Laurel's probing detective skills. Madrigal observes in Laurel shadows of her former self - a child who surrounded herself in lies and fantasies. It takes the quiet strength and wisdom of this enigmatic stranger to revitalize the garden and each of the inhabitants of Belle Fountain. Faced with the opportunity of altering the girl's future Madrigal attempts to reunite her with the one person she feels she needs most - her mother.
"The flowers need nourishment...you can't give them what they do not have"
"Then you give them what they need. You're in charge of my garden"
"Am I? I wasn't sure. I'll do my best to help with your garden, and the child. Their problems are similar"
Enid Bagnold's "The Chalk Garden" is a wonderfully odd psychological mystery which thrives on the confines of its solitary setting. Ten years after its successful stage run it was brought to the screen in Ross Hunter's lush production. The skillful hands of screenwriter John Michael Hayes pruned and weeded the overgrowth of characters and tangle of Bagnold's original play to bring out the literary blossoms of wit that her "Garden" had to offer. Hidden within the bright and cheery tones of its Technicolor palette is a highly engrossing cat-and-mouse thriller, pleasing to both the eyes and ears.
Director Ronald Neame displays a green thumb as he guides the story and its cast with a steady hand, keeping the suspense taut as, midway through, the film changes viewer focus from Laurel to Miss Madrigal. Arthur Ibbetson's slanting camera angles and Malcolm Arnold's marvelous score emphasize the tension of the film. Strains of The Chalk Garden reverberate in Arnold's 1975 score for David Copperfield.
Gladys Cooper, who had originated the role of Mrs. St. Maugham on stage, was Hunter's original choice for the screen adaptation, but the clever Edith Evans hoodwinked the producer into casting her in the part instead. Hunter was immensely pleased with her performance, as were the critics, and Evans was nominated for Best Supporting Actress for the role at the 1965 Academy Awards.
"Go ahead and cry Laurel. Cry as long and hard as you want.... God made tears to shed"
Hayley Mills gets to demonstrate her underrated dramatic acting ability in her second onscreen pairing with her father, John Mills. As Laurel, she plays the part with glib malice while retaining her childlike innocence. Sandra Dee was the original choice for the part of Laurel, but discovering that she was pregnant, had declined the role.
"At our last meeting I died. It alters the appearance."
The Chalk Garden is rich and satisfying entertainment that has aged gracefully over the years. It provides the pleasure of the companionship of an old and dear friend, and like a glass of fine port, its tone improves with each subsequent viewing.
This post is our contribution to the British Invaders Blogathon being hosted by A Shroud of Thoughts. Be sure to check out all of the great posts on classic British films!