THE CHALK GARDEN as physical location and psychological metaphor in this 1964 drama refers to a place where life (thriving plants/ loving relationships) can’t blossom without the proper care and nourishment. Thanks to the literate screenplay’s hybrid seeds (John Michael Hayes adapting the play by Enig Bagnold), and mindful nurturing from able gardeners (director Ronald Neame and producer Ross Hunter) what does flower over 106 minutes is a heady bouquet of delicately trimmed performances. It’s a gift.
Demanding dowager ‘Mrs. St. Maugham’ (Edith Evans) likes things ‘just so’. Ask ‘Maitland’, her long-suffering butler (John Mills). After a tart interview, they hire the calm and confident ‘Miss Madrigal’ (Deborah Kerr) to be governess to the old lady’s troublesome teen-aged granddaughter (Hayley Mills), who has run off everyone who’s tried the position. Madrigal is a frosty customer with a mysterious past.
She needs to be cool because problem child ‘Laurel’ isn’t spirited: she’s venomous, deceitful and an arsonist. A typical give & take has Laurel laying a trap with “Oh, if I could only be somewhere other than where I am, someone other than who I am“, Madrigal playing along “There now, where and what do you want to be?” and the girl then noosing “Dead..and in Hell!” Madrigal is determined to help Laurel get a grip and the malicious girl is dead-set on unmasking Madrigal’s secret past.
Well-paced plotting sees ‘All things in their time’. As Mrs. St. Maugham admonishes Maitland “Hurry, Maitland, is the curse of civilization,” he dryly ripostes “The fact that I hurry, Madam, gives certain people the leisure to make such observations.”
With four superb actors and a superior script, the mind games make for beautifully clipped exchanges of barbs and reveals. Kerr and John Mills are their usual precisely measured selves, and the great Felix Aylmer has a neat smaller role toward the end. Evans is wonderful, her line readings a syllable-caressing delight: she was most deservedly Oscar-nominated as Best Supporting Actress (winner was Lila Kedrova for Zorba The Greek). Hayley, 17, is marvelously malevolent, her expressive eyes full of anger and hurt, taking a break from the winning Disney fare that most people still associate her with and going full-on with her dark side. In the glow from Pollyanna and co. it’s forgotten that she was first noticed for her dramatic chops in Tiger Bay (and later, Whistle On The Wind).
The finale, while fitting, comes off perhaps a bit tidy and a drawback is Malcolm Arnold’s score, which is constant and intrusive. Mostly forgotten today (a shame), it did well at the time, coming in 27th in the US. Of course, the marketing in the States played down the civilized cruelty that marked the dialogue battles and hyped it with publicity bleats like “Hayley the Hell-Raiser!”, “Miss Madrigal: why did she lay about worrying at night, pacing her room like a wild animal?” and “A GIRL on the verge of womanhood…A WOMAN on the edge of loneliness…BOTH suspicious of affection yet starved for love.” Going up that year against another certain English nanny and her rather-more charming charges, they must have figured ‘anything to bring in the bucks’. Piffle publicity aside, enjoy a good movie, with some great acting. Also featuring Elizabeth Sellars.