1964-65 was a good year for governesses. Julie Andrews accounted for two of them, Mary Poppins and The Sound of Music, but Deborah Kerr does very well in her own, less known, 1964 governess role in The Chalk Garden. Of course, the film is not very like Mary Poppins and Kerr’s Miss Madrigal is not very like Fraulein Maria. She has a secret. And the child she must care for, Hayley Mills, makes Julie Andrew’s charges look like haloed little saints.
The film stars Deborah Kerr, Hayley Mills – in a brief departure from her Disney films – and Hayley Mill’s father, John Mills. The film opens with Miss Madrigal (Deborah Kerr) applying for the job of governess at a large home near the coast. She has no references and no experience. However, the child she is supposed to take care of, Laurel (Hayley Mills), is a positive terror and scares away the other applicant for the job with outrageous behavior, statements, and tales of horror about governesses being eaten by sharks. But the butler, Maitland (John Mills) rather likes Miss Madrigal. She meets Laurel’s grandmother, Mrs. St. Maugham (Edith Evans), who is at first not willing to hire Miss Madrigal until she discovers that she is extremely knowledgeable about gardens. Miss Madrigal makes the observation that the reason the flowers won’t grow for Mrs. St. Maugham is because the soil, chalk, is all wrong for those particular flowers and mentions what sort of soil she would need. On a whim, and because she has been unable to keep any other governess around for long, Mrs. St. Maugham hires Miss Madrigal.
Laurel is no ordinary problem child. The reason she is living with her grandmother is that several years previously her mother Olivia, (Elizabeth Sellars) had had an affair, divorced her father and remarried. The entire series of events set off something in Laurel, who became convinced that her mother did not love her and is obsessed with the notion of her mother living in sin, a notion reinforced by her grandmother. She feels abandoned and rejected. She is also obsessed with arson, murder, crime and is a chronic liar who likes to make outrageous statements to get a reaction from people. She speaks of having a desire to burn the house down, a desire channeled by her grandmother into simply burning large bonfires. Her grandmother comments wryly to Miss Madrigal that little by little they are making it smaller. “Laurel hasn’t noticed yet. One day it won’t be there.”
But Miss Madrigal sees something in Laurel. She sees something of herself when she was that age (it is amusing to try to imagine Deborah Kerr, young and wild and screaming). She sees herself as a liar, unable to appreciate that she is loved, filled with rage at the world and other people and she longs to to help Laurel.
The key, as she sees it, is to get Laurel away from her grandmother and back to her mother. It’s not that Mrs. St. Maugham is evil, but she “does not have a green thumb,” either for children or flowers, as Miss Madrigal tells her. Besides, she suspects that Mrs. St. Maugham is using Laurel to hurt Laurel’s mother, whether consciously or not.
Like Laurel, or perhaps Laurel feels this way because of her, Mrs. St. Maugham feels betrayed by her daughter. She and Olivia have a fraught relationship and the man Olivia left was the man Mrs. St. Maugham had chosen for her to marry. But Olivia desperately wants to take Laurel back with her.
But meanwhile, Miss Madrigal has to deal with Laurel, who specializes in investigating her governesses, snooping in their possessions (she can pick locks), finding out their secrets, or inventing secrets, and generally exposing them and sending them packing. Miss Madrigal is an especially interesting subject. She arrives with all new clothes, still in their wrappings, still with the tags on them. She paces the room at night. And she definitely has a secret, something definite in her past. What occurs is a kind of game of cat and mouse between Laurel and Miss Madrigal, though Miss Madrigal does not put up with half the nonsense that her grandmother does.
It partially makes me think of an English Country House murder mystery. Mostly because of the setting in a English home by the sea, the eccentric people (Mrs. St. Maugham and the butler, Maitland, who has rare privileges and feels free to make cheeky comments), and also the game of wits played out between Laurel and Miss Madrigal. Laurel is trying to find out who she really is, while Miss Madrigal deflects her inquiries and is trying to reach past Laurel’s lying and outrageous exterior to the wounded child within. Also, Maitland has a great, though healthy, interest in crime and detective stories. Ironically enough, a crime is discovered in somebody’s past, but it is not an indictment of that person and does not come as a huge surprise the the viewer, either.
Deborah Kerr does a marvelous job. She plays it both humorously – at moments she is enjoying this game of wits – but also deeply passionate, initially hidden behind her blank exterior. Ironically, she is hiding something, but must lose her secret and expose her heart to win Laurel. Hayley Mills also does a great job in a role quite different from anything she did at Disney. Underneath, there is a very vulnerable child playing games, until she realizes that she’s stumbled on something that is not a game at all.
The Chalk Garden is an adaptation of a play by Enid Bagnold and Edith Evans played Mrs. St. Maugham in the play as well as in the movie. She’s quite an interesting character, because she is not a villain, nor does she play her like a selfish harpy. She strikes me as one of those ladies who was probably a flapper in her day, witty and, as we learn, with a host of admiring men in her past, some of who she still knows (like the judge played by Felix Aylmer, who she wants to help her keep Laurel from Olivia). But she obviously does not have it in her to raise children. She is kind to Maitland, however, who has sad story in his past.
This trailer makes the film look quite melodramatic, which it is in a way, but not quite as hysterical as all that! I really enjoyed it. There is warmth and real feeling, learning to open up the heart to accept love, wry wit. Maitland, especially, has some good dialogue (he and Miss Madrigal are talking in the library when he notices that Laurel is spying on them and he closes the door, commenting “Laurel is not at her best through mahogany”), though he is not the comic relief. He is almost the heart of the film, though he does not seem to do much. He is the solid, kind presence that balances them all.