The Chalk Garden (1964) and Whistle Down the Wind (1961) probably rank as two of Hayley Mills’ lesser-known films, especially to American audiences who associate her with Disney fare. Yet, Mills’ loyal fans consider these films, along with the immensely popular Pollyanna, to be the best showcases for her underrated dramatic talents. On its own merits, The Chalk Garden is a haunting tale about secrets and the passing of judgment on people, often without charity.
Arthur Ibbetson’s photography sweeps the audience past water and cliffs into Belle Fountain. It is a lovely but cold mansion that rarely reverberates with warm laughter. The residents of this house include a dowager, Mrs. St. Maugham (Dame Edith Evans), her out-of-control teenage granddaughter Laurel (Mills), and their manservant Maitland (John Mills).
Enter Deborah Kerr as Madrigal, who is hired as governess without a reference because she knows something about gardening. Mrs. St. Maugham makes it clear that “Laurel is mine” because her daughter, Olivia, threw away breeding for a passing infatuation. She poisons Laurel’s mind against her own mother, causing Madrigal to note that “flowers need nourishment … your soil can’t give them what it doesn’t have.” To which the grandmother replies: “Then you give them what they need. You’re in charge of my garden.” Madrigal answers: “Am I? I wasn’t sure. I’ll do my best…to help you with your garden and the child. Their problems are similar.”
Madrigal herself is “wonderfully odd.” She is quiet and very observational. Laurel realizes that Madrigal is a mystery woman who paces her room at night “like a caged animal,” has only new possessions, doesn’t have a picture of a loved one in her room, and receives no letters or phone calls. Laurel discusses these concerns with her grandmother and Maitland as she begins her work to rid herself of another in a long line of caregivers. But even Laurel isn’t prepared for what she learns about Madrigal.
Ronald Neame’s tight direction keeps this intriguing story moving quickly as viewer focus shifts from Laurel to Madrigal. He hides the stage play origins extremely well until the climactic confrontations, where the close quarters actually increase the intensity of the revelations.
Although Mills accounts for The Chalk Garden’s following, her fellow performers steal their share of the spotlight, especially Dame Edith Evans and Deborah Kerr. Evans earned a Best Supporting Actress nomination as Laurel’s grandmother. Interestingly, Kerr played a questionably disturbed governess three years earlier in The Innocents, a film version of Henry James’ haunting novel The Turn of the Screw. In The Chalk Garden, her charge is a young girl unafraid of possession from ghosts, but with a disturbing need to lie and a fear of expressing honest emotions.
It’s an ideal role for Mills, allowing her to combine brattiness with vulnerability and unrepressed anger with youthful innocence. The allure for Mills’ fans is obvious, since it provides a welcome change-of-pace from the standard Disney heroine roles (e.g., In Search of the Castaways, The Moonspinners) that stifled her adult career.