This is a film that I never get tired of seeing, it is filled with excellent performances from everyone in the cast, and features some very memorable characters. This film is all about human emotions, damaged people and the secrets we harbour.
It was a few years ago when I first saw this film, and I was completely blown away at the time by the performance of Hayley Mills. She still impresses me each time I watch this one. Hayley at this point in her career had been acting for several years, and she had always been very natural on screen. I think she truly outdid herself in this film though.
Hayley perfectly captured just how emotionally messed up and defensive her character, Laurel is. Hayley steals every scene she is in, often with just a look or by her body language in scenes. Laurel explodes with long contained pain and anger several times during the film, and Hayley makes you feel every tear shed, every scream and every angry word.
Hayley lets us see that deep down though Laurel is just a little girl desperate to be loved. Laurel puts up a defensive front to protect herself. I’m also fascinated by the behaviour of her character, and how this girl finds weakness in others and hurts others so that she can feel like she is in control of some aspect of her life.
The Chalk Garden is directed by Ronald Neame, produced by Ross Hunter, and has a screenplay by John Michael Hayes, which is based upon the play of the same name by Enid Bagnold. The film tells the story of Laurel (Hayley Mills), who is a deeply troubled teenager. Laurel has scared away a succession of governesses, after she drove them to their wits end. Laurel does things to shock and scare people, she also makes up stories (sometimes half truths)and has a nasty habit of prying into the lives of those around her.
The latest governess to take charge of Laurel is Miss Madrigal (Deborah Kerr) she is an enigmatic, no nonsense woman, and she sees straight through Laurel’s troubled exterior to the damaged girl beneath.
Laurel’s father is dead, and she is estranged from her mother (Elizabeth Sellars)who she blames for her fathers death. Laurel lives with her elderly grandmother (Edith Evans) and the loyal and compassionate family butler, Maitland (John Mills).
Maitland cares for Laurel and her grandmother very much, and he can also see straight through Laurel’s actions and behaviour to the fragile girl inside. Laurel’s bad behaviour and needling don’t affect Maitland anymore as he has grown used to her. He offers Miss Madrigal support and guidance in how to deal with Laurel.
Miss Madrigal also takes charge of the garden of the home (the chalk garden of the title)to see if she can bring it to life (much the same as she must do with Laurel). Laurel begins to suspect Miss Madrigal is not all she seems. Soon a damaging revelation will emerge which makes Laurel see the consequences of her own actions and behaviour.
I love watching the slowly developing bond and trust grow between Hayley and Deborah’s characters, the growth and change in their relationship is beautifully portrayed by both actresses. At first Laurel is openly hostile towards her, then she begins to like her, then she becomes fascinated by her. Madrigal knows the only way to reach Laurel is to be honest with her, and she knows better than to try and forcibly change the girl.
I also love the growing bond between Maitland and Madrigal. It is inferred that he admires and likes her, and that he is possibly falling in love with her. Madrigal certainly likes him but it’s not clear if she would ever open her heart to him. I love all the scenes between John and Deborah and I think they worked very well together.
My favourite pairing in the film is Laurel and Maitland. Hayley and her father John Mills made several films together in which they co-starred alongside one another, this is my favourite of their screen pairings. I love the bickering between Maitland and Laurel. I also like how Maitland knows Laurel’s secret. What is her secret? She is just a lonely and sad little girl, she acts older than her years, and she acts mean and tough, but she is really anything but. Maitland knows this fact long before others do and he sticks with the girl and supports her as he can.
I love the scene where Maitland catches Laurel talking to her doll. She is so disgusted that he sees her in a (in her view)vulnerable and weak moment; Maitland knows all too well that she thinks that, you can tell by the way he looks at her throughout this scene. It is a touching moment when you see Laurel (for the first time)as just a lonely child.
While it is Hayley who steals all the scenes, the adults in the cast are equally brilliant too.
Deborah gives one of her best performances here, as a woman harbouring great pain and troubles of her own. Deborah’s performance is all in the eyes and in what is not said aloud, as much as in what is said. She makes Madrigal strong and really piques your interest about this woman and her secrets.
Edith Evans is very good as the strong woman who is at odds with her own daughter and granddaughter. In Madrigal she finds someone who challenges her and tells her a few home truths.
John Mills is marvellous as the quiet and wise Maitland. No fool and no pushover, this guy doesn’t take Laurel’s mean temper lightly, but he lets her get at him because he knows she needs to vent and take things out on someone. He puts up with what she does to him, but he won’t stand idly by and see her do the same to Madrigal.
Elizabeth Sellars doesn’t have much to do as Laurel’s elegant, absentee mother, but she lets you feel her characters frustration and anger with her own mother in a key scene.
The great Felix Aylmer appears briefly as a man who knows the truth about Madrigal. Aylmer was one of the great British character actors and it really is a treat to see him here.
My favourite scenes are the following. The doll scene. Laurel and Madrigal painting up on the cliffs. Maitland and Madrigal’s talk in the Library. Laurel breaking down on the beach. All the scenes between Maitland and Laurel. Madrigal and Laurel playing tennis and playing the question and answer game. Laurel stuck in the tree. Maitland buying Madrigal a bolt for the door. The revelation about Madrigal.
I consider this to be one of the best British films, and it’s certainly a real gem in the careers of all of the cast members. Any other fans of this one? I highly recommend it if you haven’t seen it.