The Chalk Garden (1964) ***

You couldn’t make a movie like this now because (plot spoiler, I’m afraid) even the dottiest of old ladies would make at least a better attempt at collecting a reference from a prospective employee for fear she might be hiring someone disreputable. Though I doubt if many employers would expect a governess to turn out to be a murderess.

That this movie chimes with a contemporary trope – the criminal wanting to prevent others from following in their footsteps – makes it far ahead of its time. Made today, of course, the unruly child rather than merely threatening to unleash her arson impulses would probably have burned the house down.

So it’s more a drama of manners, if you like. Very presentable but clearly down-on-her-luck Miss Madrigal (Deborah Kerr) is taken on by Mrs St Maugham (Edith Evans) as governess for her grandchild Laurel (Hayley Mills) because nobody else wants the job. Laurel’s outrageous behavior has sent a score perfectly well qualified ladies scurrying. Madrigal is hardly fazed by anything Laurel can get up to.

But the child is clearly suffering abandonment issues, her beautiful mother Olivia (Elizabeth Sellars) having gone off with another man. Grandmother incites grandchild to hate the mother. But Olivia’s maternal instincts have kicked in and she wants her child back. While Madrigal can deal with Laurel’s tantrums she is less fortified against the child’s inveterate snooping. Finding a mysterious suitcase leads Laurel to fantasize about Madrigal’s past.

Mostly the film is a four-hander, butler Maitland (John Mills) playing a significant role in proceedings, not least in his effortless management of the wild child. Quite why a such a pragmatic and assured gentleman should end up in this remote mansion is another mystery and thankfully there is no attempt made at playing up the cliff-top location in a suspenseful manner.

Mrs St Maugham is imperious but not entirely practical, either in setting child against mother or in trying to grow flowers in such chalky soil, though Madrigal appears to have sufficient horticultural knowledge to set her straight on the latter and attempt to intervene on the former.

There’s a deadline of sorts. Olivia is coming to remove the child. Whether she goes willingly or not doesn’t matter. Madrigal sees her role as trying to prepare a child to love her mother and be more grown-up than the adults around her and forgive her.  

Madrigal’s guilt unnecessarily causes her to reveal that she had been jailed for murdering her stepsister, having been as resentful and jealous of the girl as Laurel currently is of her mother. Mrs St Maugham had called on old acquaintance Judge (Felix Aylmer ) for legal advice on how to prevent Olivia getting the child. He was the presiding judge in Madrigal’s case. Imagining he had not forgotten the trial – which of course he has – she feels duty bound to blurt out the truth before she is humiliated.  The confession helps Laurel realise how dangerous a path she is on and pushes her towards reconciliation rather than revenge.

It has all the making of a well-made play which is hardly surprising since it is based on Enid Bagnold’s Broadway success, at one time mooted as a film to star Joanne Woodward and Sandra Dee. So it moves along in the traditional three-act manner, plenty space given to establishing characters, introducing the undercurrents and leading to revelation and resolution.

So, mostly, it depends on the acting. Luckily, it is excellent. This was Hayley Mills in transition, far removed from Disney saccharine of The Parent Trap (1961) and about the same distance from the full-blown adult bottom-baring of The Family Way (1966). She projects a great deal more torment than in either of those films and comes across as believable, not exactly a young hoodlum but left to her own devices and starved of parental love only a matter of time before she would commit a crime of some kind.

Deborah Kerr hadn’t made a film in three years but her screen persona had shifted from the passionate – From Here to Eternity (1953), An Affair to Remember (1957), The Sundowners (1960) – to the repressed. Her spinster introduced in The Innocents (1961) had a great deal in common with her spinster of The Night of the Iguana (1965). But this is a different kettle of fish. Here, she exudes capability but with a self-awareness that undercuts such confidence, trying to keep a lid of emotions she struggles to handle.

John Mills (Tunes of Glory, 1960) casts a sardonic eye on the household while Edith Evans (The Whisperers) portrays a sorely wounded matriarch. Director Ronald Neame (Gambit, 1966) cleverly opens up the play, using the cliffs, gardens and rocky beach to considerable effect, but keeps the drama taut. John Michael Hayes (Nevada Smith, 1966) produced a workable screenplay.

Apologies for giving away the story, a good watch more for the acting than the twist.

Author: Brian Hannan

I am a published author of books about film - over a dozen to my name, the latest being "When Women Ruled Hollywood." As the title of the blog suggests, this is a site devoted to movies of the 1960s but since I go to the movies twice a week - an old-fashioned double-bill of my own choosing - I might occasionally slip in a review of a contemporary picture.

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