Sunday, August 3, 2014

The Chalk Garden ( 1964 )

"The only hold we have on this world is the truth"...

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 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 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. 

The extremely talented Deborah Kerr is delightful as Madrigal, and although she does not possess a glimmer of mystery about her, manages to keep the audience in suspended bafflement until the conclusion. Felix Aylmer and Elizabeth Sellars round out the small cast in the role of Judge "Puppy" McWhirrey, one of Mrs. St. Maugham's former lovers, and her daughter Olivia, respectably.

The Chalk Garden is a simple story and yet one of multiple facets. Miss Madrigal's arrival at Belle Fountain disrupts the lives of each of the characters and through her they come to learn about themselves and grow as individuals. She instantly sees through Laurel's intricately tangled web of deceit and attempts to break down her barriers of falsehood by challenging her every lie. Laurel at first feels antagonistic towards her and then as the challenge of exposing her takes on the thrill of a game-hunt "Boss" Madrigal becomes a beloved enemy, until finally, near the climax, a surrogate mother and a true and trusted friend. In turn, Madrigal finds that the fear she dreaded most - exposure - has in truth set her free. 

"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! 


  1. I've always liked The Chalk Garden, primarily for its cast. It's worth it just to see Hayley Mills demonstrate that she is a fine film actress. Thanks for participating in the blogathon!

    1. The first time I saw The Chalk Garden I thought the part completely unlike Hayley ( the Hayley that Walt Disney established ) but after several viewings the part really seems to be fitted to her. I couldn't imagine any one else playing her part...although I do wonder what the film would have been like had Neame made it without Ross Hunter, possibly in the late 1960s in the vein of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. In that case, Claire Bloom and Pamela Franklin would have been ideal in the parts of Madrigal and Laurel.

  2. As a true-blue-dies-in-the-wool Hayley Mills fan, this was a must see for me. I saw it when it first came out, but I think I was a little too young too appreciate the adult theme. Seeing it later, I much appreciated the work of all involved, but especially my idol, Hayley Mills.

    1. The film has a really nice aura that somehow grows on you throughout each subsequent viewing. I didn't appreciate it the first time I saw the film either, but now I adore it and see what a hidden gem it truly is.

  3. I've been a fan of Mills since I was introduced to her in Pollyanna (probably when I was aged about 7 - oh how I wanted all her outfits!) and I think this is a great, often-overlooked film. Mills is great in it, as you observe, but I also think that so-called domestic or family dramas ('women's pictures') aren't seen as serious films because of their subject matter. A great shame, as they often have a lot to give.

    1. That's an interesting point you bring up about women's pictures not being considered serious dramas...I've noticed that too. I can't quite picture a man being attached to this film, unless it is because of Mills or Kerr's performances. There is just some elusive quality about The Chalk Garden that I love so much, and I think it has something to do with the "comfort" this film brings to me when I watch it. Good movies sure do have a tendency to bring us comfort, you know.

  4. This sounds like a great movie - something lik The Innocents meets The Moon-Spinners. But I hope Hayley's character is not as stubborn as in Moon-Spinners!
    Great review, I hope I can see it soon.
    Thanks for the kind comment!

    1. Or dear, I think she's much more stubborn than in The Moon-Spinners...especially since there she had a good cause to be stubborn about, here she is just playing the spoiled child because she doesn't have a mother-influence in her life. The Chalk Garden is worth checking out Le, and when you do let us know what you think about it!