The Chalk Garden (1964), or I Rather Fancy The Idea Of You Not Being In This House Any Longer, My Dear

28 03 2009

Morning, all! Today’s film is a reader submission by Pam. Thanks a lot, Pam! Keep up the good work; I need all the movies I can find!

Today’s feature is another hard-to-find film. I don’t believe it is difficult to procure because of its quality, but more because of time’s neglect and Universal’s refusal to chuck this out on DVD. The selection process for movies going to DVD must be very strange:

“Okay, so we have The Wizard of Gore, Swamp Diamonds, Santa Claus Conquers The Martians, and The 6’th Day all coming out on DVD today.”

“But, Boss, what about The African Queen and The Chalk Garden?”

“Shut your mouth, Stevens! We have to put out the entire series of The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr and Child’s Play 3 before we can even THINK about putting those movies out!”

At least, that’s what probably happens. Anyway, this movie is a high-class British drama of fine standards that really isn’t so bad. It’s by no means perfect, but it is a lost gem in the sense that it is one of the few times we see child star Hayley Mills take out her long, sharp British claws. She is a real bitch in this movie! The tagline even says, to hilarious effect, “Hayley’s a Rebel With a Streak of Imp!” Yeah! Whatever that means!

So, we start out with a wealthy widowed grandmother, a Mrs. St. Maugham. She is looking for a governess for her granddaughter Laurel. It sounds easy enough, but they have hit a snag in the search. It seems that 16 year-old Laurel is a total, absolute hellion who does not want a governess. Every time one is hired, she digs away at them, examining their pasts and berating them until they decide to leave. She is incredibly mean, a constant liar, and considerate of no one, not ever herself. One day, though, things change when a Miss Madrigal applies for the job. She is very strong-willed, and not too intimidated by this little terror’s wild ways, though she admittedly may have some misgivings (she also takes on the job of gardener to cultivate the chalky soil that Mrs. St. Maugham and her aging butler Maitland have mismananged over the years). She has something in her past that she is not divulging, and she plans to keep it that way despite Laurel’s constant digging. So the movie is both a war of attrition between Miss Madrigal and Laurel as well as a genuine concern for one another. Laurel is lonely and hurt by her mother’s hasty flight from her to go live with another man, and Miss Madrigal has something that hurts her as well, and they both in subtle ways show their concern while still battling to keep up their own barriers. Can these two open up to each other? What will happen when Laurel’s mother enters the scene, wanting to be with Laurel again? And just what is the secret behind Miss Madrigal’s eyes?

This movie is like Mary Poppins or Nanny McPhee or any number of droll British professional babysitting movies involving dreadful children, jelly-spined parents and strong-willed adults willing to put up with both of them, albeit with a few key differences. First of all, obviously, this is just a tad bit darker than those afformentioned films, with themes of abandonment, depression, and murder (the title is a strong metaphor for life sprouting up in a terrible environment). It makes for a drama both children past a certain age and adults can watch together without either being incredibly bored. Secondly, there is a clear twist on this formula with not only the children having a dark history, but the nanny does as well. Miss Madrigal is no naive Pollyanna, and that does well to bridge the gap between the warring duo as they almost compliment each other. And also, as this was originally a stage production written by Eric Bagnold, it is much more dialog driven than other movies of this sort. I find this works to a spellbinding effect due to the break-neck pace of proper English dialog, which sounds more like a ribald machine gun at times than it does human voices.

The cast was mixed, I feel. Hayley Mills as Laurel certainly portrays a loud-mouthed sad-sack, and I think that she should have been more of a star than she ended up as. When they are painting on the beach, and Miss Madrigal admires Laurel painting, and Laurel says, “Thanks for the compliment. Don’t expect one in return!”, I busted out laughing at the sheer rudeness of it all. She had the chops, but she couldn’t escape Walt Disney’s child star trappings. Here she shows off just a glimmer of what could have been, and it is very good indeed. Miss Madrigal was played by Deborah Kerr, and she is spectacular. Her Emma Thompson-esque glowers made me cringe whenever she looked at Laurel sometimes, and I was horrified to learn that she was not nominated for an Oscar for this role while Edith Evans was. Edith Evans played Mrs. St. Maugham, and I feel like she sleepwalked through the whole thing. She had a line here and there at the end that was a real zinger, but I do not feel that her performance was good enough for this movie, let alone an Oscar. Sir John Mills plays Maitland the butler here, and he is out-acted by his own daughter. He is nothing really special. I had hoped he would stand out, bring in some of that dry charm of his, but I was left wanting.

So a good feature that stands out, but is marred by somewhat of a cookie-cutter plot and indifferent performances here and there. It is worth a gander to hear some of the choice bits of Hayley Mills wit thrown out across the screen. This is the kind of movie to watch on a lovely Sunday morning while enjoying a long, casual breakfast with a couple members of your family or some good friends. I give The Chalk Garden 7 1/2 loud-mouthed sad-sacks out of 10.

Tomorrow is a surprise flick! Come back for loads of surprising review goodness!