Based on a play by Enid Bagnold, THE CHALK GARDEN is the story of the need to bring love - real love - to children. Deborah Kerr is Miss Madrigal, a newly hired nanny/companion at the home of Mrs. St. Maugham (Edith Evans), a wealthy and slightly eccentric old woman who has been at war with her daughter Olivia (Elizabeth Sellars) for some time. Olivia has a daughter Laurel (Hayley Mills) who has emotional problems, and whom Mrs. St. Maugham has legally taken away from Olivia. The old lady pretends that only she can give the love and care to the girl that her own daughter fails to give, but in reality she allows Laurel to have full freedom. As Laurel is an arsonist and liar this is not the best policy. The household is completed by the wryly humorous butler Maitland (John Mills). He sees the blundering by his employer, and he would like to tell a few things to Laurel, but he restrains himself because of his status as an employee.
Madrigal, of course, having just arrived is more willing to openly confront Laurel. She does so in an effort to understand her. Laurel appreciates having a new person to toy with, and opens up to an extent (revealing a love of old murder cases), but she is trying to find out the secret that Madrigal is holding back on - which she assumes can prove quite wounding if exposed, and she would love to expose it.
At points the secret comes near to the surface, but it keeps getting closed as quickly as it seems to appear. In the meantime Madrigal tries to get her employer see the need for Laurel to have her mother back into her life, and even gets Olivia into the house at one point. This does not sit well with Mrs. St. Maugham.
The explosion finally occurs when a friend of Mrs. St. Maugham, Justice McWhirry, comes for a visit encouraged by a malicious Laurel. What result is too much even for the young girl, who learns that some matters should remain secrets.
I saw this fine film at Radio City in 1964, but I imagine my parents took me and my sister there because Hayley Mills was given star treatment in the newspapers for this film. At that time, due to her string of movies with Walt Disney like POLLYANNA, the reference to Mills' name in any movie to an American audience suggested a "kid's flick". That she had started her career with TIGER BAY (also with her father John and Holst Bucholst) regarding a young girl helping a young man trying to avoid arrest for murder was relatively unknown - that film, like THE CHALK GARDEN, was made in England. Only Hayley's American films like THE PARENT TRAP (again with Disney) were for kids. The subject matter here, on what damage can be done to a young child by warring adults and lack of needed affection, was not ignored by Disney but was usually sugar coated somehow. Films like THE CHALK GARDEN did not sugar coat the subject matter, and so they did not do as well with American audiences as British ones.
If you see this one listed on Turner Classics grab it. Hayley gives a fine performance as a malevolent and sharp imp. Kerr holds her own as the woman who offers help but is heavily handicapped. Evans (after a great West End stage career) began really coming into films in the late 1940s, but in sharp character roles like in THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST or TOM JONES or THE QUEEN OF SPADES. It was a later entrance than Peggy Ashcroft's or John Guilgud's, but it proved highly rewarding. John Mills is excellent as usual in his role of the wiser but (by social situation) quieter butler (who finally does get his moment to tell off Laurel). Sellars has a shorter role than one would like, but makes the most of it confronting Evans. And my old favorite Aylmer has a moment of recognition that few Judges like to ever experience.