Secrets by the Sea – Rediscovering ‘The Chalk Garden’ (UK 1964 – 106 mins)

Posted in Rediscover by - March 11, 2014
Secrets by the Sea – Rediscovering ‘The Chalk Garden’ (UK 1964 – 106 mins)

A very ‘British’ movie, and a highly entertaining one, ‘The Chalk Garden’ features an excellent cast, engaging script and a central mystery element. Based on the play by Enid Bagnold, this colourful drama also benefits from outstanding location shooting, filmed in and around the Sussex coast of England.

Miss Madrigal (Deborah Kerr) takes on the job of governess to Laurel (Hayley Mills), a troubled but very intelligent girl on the verge of womanhood. With a knack for scaring away any new tutors, and with Madrigal being a private person with a secret past, Laurel sets about trying to figure her out, vowing to expose her in the process.

After a making terrific debut at 12 years old, in the taut 1959 thriller ‘Tiger Bay’, Hayley Mills achieved great success in various Disney movies, including a special Oscar-winning role as ‘Pollyanna’ (’60). With ‘The Chalk Garden’ Hayley got a chance to really shine, in her first grown-up role, and is my favourite of all her performances. Her night-time beach scene with Deborah Kerr, where Laurel breaks down, and in the space of a few seconds, goes from angry teen to wounded child, is very powerful and affecting to watch. A world away from her Disney Studio innocence.

Deborah Kerr is perfect as Miss Madrigal, the prim yet mysterious governess. One of the UK’s best actresses, Kerr had also played a governess to great effect in the superb 1961 chiller ‘The Innocents’. John Mills is great fun as Maitland, the book-loving butler, and voice of reason in this eccentric household. 75 year old Stage legend Edith Evans plays Laurel’s grandmother; Mrs St. Maugham, and earned her second Academy Award nomination for Supporting Actress. Edith had been nominated the previous year for her part as Susannah York’s aunt in ‘Tom Jones’ (’63), and would receive her only nomination for Best Actress a few years later, for her terrific turn in ‘The Whisperers’ (’67), again as an elderly eccentric. In one of his last films, the wonderful Felix Aylmer is also excellent as the retired judge, whose reminiscences about old trials, finally exposes Miss Madrigal’s sordid past.

Distinguished director Ronald Neame had begun as a cinematographer on major films including ‘In Which We Serve’ (’42) and ‘Blithe Spirit’ (’45), before making the successful transition into directing. Neame had early success with the exciting 1956 thriller ‘The Man Who Never Was’, and the superb military drama; ‘Tunes of Glory’ (’60). After directing Maggie Smith to an Oscar in ‘The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie’ (’69), Neame had his greatest success with the worldwide hit; ‘The Poseidon Adventure’ in 1972.

The first-rate cinematography was by camera legend Arthur Ibbetson, who’s later credits included ‘Where Eagles Dare’ (’69), and ‘The Railway Children’ (’70). An Oscar-winner for ‘The Bridge on the River Kwai’ (’57), multi-talented composer Malcolm Arnold provided the films excellent score.

Playing like a glossy soap opera, ‘The Chalk Garden’ manages to escape its stage origins with some memorable outdoor scenes, with the Sussex coastline creating an excellent backdrop to some of the films dramatic moments. This very engrossing movie is a wonderful ensemble piece, and is a garden that I never tire of revisiting.

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