09/08/2012 09:46 BST | Updated 08/10/2012 06:12 BST

The Great Ealing Film Challenge 90: Mandy (1952)

Mandy is a film that can be defined in various ways. The DVD cover, in a departure from the normal Ealing Studios branding, sells the film as 'from the director of The Man in the White Suit', but the film also has generic similarities to 'social problem' films of the early 1950s (such as I Believe in You, 1952), female-targeted stories (the likes of Dance Hall, 1950; The Divided Heart, 1954) and more child-oriented films (Hue & Cry, 1947; The Magnet, 1950). In the grander scheme of Ealing Studios in the 1950s, it is also the first of five successful collaborations between Jack Hawkins and Ealing (following his brief appearance in The Next of Kin, 1942), and the first to position him as a professional, often highly driven and brusque, individual (a role he would pursue in The Cruel Sea, 1953 and The Long Arm, 1956, among others).

There are traces of all those approaches throughout the films performances and narrative. When Christine and Harry Garland (Phyllis Calvert and Terence Morgan) realise their daughter Mandy is deaf, their responses threaten to tear the family apart. Initially living with Harry's wealthier parents (Godfrey Tearle and Marjorie Fielding), Christine realises the house has becomes a prison for Mandy, and (against Harry's wishes) takes her to a special boarding school in Manchester run by Dick Searle (Hawkins). Here, Mandy struggles with her new surroundings, but with individual tuition from Searle, begins to become more confident and starts to speak. Harry tries to force Christine to return to London, and uses rumours of Searle and Christine having an affair to take Mandy back to the family home. At the end, female independence (for both Christine and Mandy) is resolved by Mr Garland's intervention, and the family is reunited.

Although not a 'social problem' film in the classic sense, this is a social 'issue' film about the one in sixteen thousand children born deaf: an issue which (in true Ealing style) is married to a domestic melodrama. The film does depict Mandy as a problem that can be 'solved' through education but, unlike Charles Barr, I don't think Mandy stands for 'all children, for the potential locked up inside the new (English) generation' (152), not least because we meet several (deaf and non-deaf) children in the film, and their potential seems to be happily unlocked already (in fact, the interplay of Mandy and other children is an element that structures much of the story, despite the clear influence of Searle). It is not just Mandy, of course, that needs to be investigated: her family (parents and grandparents) also need attention. So, the film is an amalgam of several of the Ealing elements identified: social issue, melodrama, about children but also the adults who revolve around them.

What then about star and director? The claim for Mackendrick seems fuelled by the need to demonstrate an author's vision at work, but the gulf between a critic's need to discover a vision and the actuality of such a vision appear quite distant here: the film is beautifully shot by Douglas Slocombe, the actors are strong, and the storyline is potent and dramatic stuff - but the dark, satirical and joyful notes of Whisky Galore! (1949), The Man in the White Suit (1951), The Maggie (1954) or The Ladykillers (1955) are nowhere to be seen here. That is not to reduce the often powerful work in Mandy, more to note that it does not have that immediate connection to what came before or after. The film is playful around its use of sound (including early scenes of Christine and Harry making noise to try and attract Mandy's attention), and in attempts to connect the audience to Mandy's experience: often the camera will push in on Mandy's face, and the soundtrack will fade, until we are left with only the visual information. Although not a complete sense of her point-of-view, these occur at dramatically important moments (a van driver shouting at her; a teacher trying to get her to speak). As noted below, the film also isolates Mandy within the frame (in the empty garden of the Garland house, in a park), also helping to visually identify her 'otherness' within the narrative world.

Performance-wise, Hawkins is a reliable actor and gives Searle a requisite grumpy passion that matches his calling as a teacher. He is also largely secondary to the Garland family: Calvert and Morgan are solid, but they tend to be overshadowed by Mandy Moore's startling turn as the title character, a piece of acting that, given her age and lack of dialogue, remains powerful to this day. The film doesn't give her an easy task, either, with several long close-ups that require the young actor to perform wholly through expression, and convey the frustration of Mandy's attempts to speak and understand.

However, while Mandy's story is always central, the Garland family dynamic is at the heart of the film's concerns, particularly its exploration of female imprisonment, escape and isolation. One of Mandy's first actions is to try and escape the tall cage of the Garland home, with its ornate hallways, prim rooms, paved courtyard garden: isolated in these spaces, her 'escape' is onto the neighbouring bombsite (almost required for an Ealing film at this stage) and streets, where she is almost run over (by a van she cannot hear). The motif of escape continues when Christine and Mandy flee London and the Garland family; yet their new life is isolating for both. Mandy is visually separate from many of her classmates, unable to fit in; while Christine is often pictured alone in the hallways of the school. While Harry sporadically appears to fill some of those empty spaces, Searle is the more comforting figure (it is telling that he is the one who fills the male role in a celebratory montage showing Mandy's improvement), but he and Christine rarely make a compelling couple, and he ends the film as isolated as the Garland women he has been helping. Returning to the London house, Mandy is visually pictured within door frames that trap her back into this old life. The unlikely saviour to her isolation (and Christine's) is Mr Garland: after hearing Mandy speak, he reunites Christine and Harry, and they watch as Mandy, on the same bombsite, is included in a game with the local children.

So, in the end, a film that is almost all of the things listed above, but which survives largely because of the committed performance of Moore in the central role.

[Mandy is available on DVD from Studio Canal UK. See for more details]

Next time, more children-centred drama in The Divided Heart (1954)...