Thursday, February 25, 2010

The Whisperers (1967): Are You There?

Few, if any, films present the loneliness of old age as starkly as Bryan Forbes' The Whisperers (1967), and few actresses have shown the depth of character for such a topic as Dame Edith Evans does in this film. The Whisperers is Evans' tour de force. Nominated for an American Academy Award, she lost out to Katherine Hepburn (as so many before and after her), but her performance in the film was so effective and absorbing that she was not only nominated but won the New York Film Critics Circle Award, the National Board of Review Award, the Golden Globe and the British Academy of Film and Television Arts Award (BAFTA), all as Best Actress.

Evans' is best known as a haughty, aristocrat in films like The Importance of Being Earnest (1952), Tom Jones (1963) and The Chalk Garden (1964), even displaying a lofty indifference as the Ghost of Christmas Past in 1970's Scrooge. But her character in The Whisperers is the exact opposite. Mrs. Margaret Ross is an elderly, mentally fragile, poverty stricken woman, living on the dole in a dingy flat in Manchester, England. Friendless and with no family of any help to her, she finds a lone friend in a compassionate social worker (Gerald Sim). Her onset of senility has her imagining voices coming from her ancient radio or the pipes of her decrepit plumbing. Her daily routine consists of singing hymns with a host of fellow unfortunates at a local soup kitchen and trying to warm her feet on a heating duct at the free library. Her quiet, lonely existence is sent into upheaval when her worthless son shows up ~ possibly the first time in years ~ with a parcel, which unbeknownst to Mrs. Ross, contains stolen loot, which he hopes to hide in her shabby hovel. When she discovers the ill-gotten gains, her feeble mind believes it is the inheritance she has long waited for. Her troubles only truly begin when she meets a shady lady out to steal the money, lands in hospital with pneumonia and has her long lost, no good husband cast upon her as caregiver.

If indeed Dame Edith is the whole show ~ and she is ~ the support offered her by a plethora of wonderful British actors is just as substantial. As her deadbeat husband, Archie Ross, veteran actor Eric Portman gives one of his final performances. His Archie is a vagabond mooch, who is coerced by the authorities to see to his deserted wife after her bout with pneumonia. Another winning performance is by Gerald Sim. As Mr. Conrad, the social worker who takes a personal interest in the desolate and destitute Mrs. Ross, Sim offers a sympathetic portrayal of what could have been another standard part swept under the cinematic rug. Ronald Frasier and Avis Bunnage also do a fine job as Ross' worthless son and a degenerate con woman respectively. The only complaint is for Nanette Newman. As the director's wife, Ms. Newman received third billing for less than half dozen or so lines in a part that could have easily been edited. Although very attractive, Ms. Newman, aka Mrs. Forbes, appeared in the film in a beefed up part, apparently the recipient of good nepotism.

The moody and very atmospheric score is by multi award winning composer John Barry and the low-key cinematography by Gerry Turpin, both turning in winning elements to the emotionally draining story. Not for the faint of heart, The Whisperers has very mature and thought provoking themes. It even touches on the subjects of elderly sexual relations, interracial cohabitation, and even the briefest hint of incest (when Evans' would be assailant, father and daughter, give one another knowing smirks). But the overwhelming commentary is on aging and poverty, and that commentary is brought to the screen both thoughtfully and sensitively. It's message is one that is as important and prevalent today in the United States as it was in Great Britain, circa 1967.


  1. Rupert,
    You have written a beautiful description of a movie that I have only been able to watch once, though I never forgot Edith Evans' face in this role at the end of the film. Thank you so much for taking the trouble to shine a light on a brilliant character study that is too little known. I will be hoping that you will be able to write about Make Way For Tomorrow (1937), another deeply affecting portrait of aging from Leo McCarey at his best that Criterion has finally brought to DVD.

    Btw, if you have a chance, you might enjoy seeing Edith Evans as a beguiling Lady Gregory in Young Cassidy on TCM on Mar 17th at 6:00PM EST.
    All the best,

  2. Wow, Rupert. You are constantly amazing me with how good a writer you are. You have a knack for capturing the essence of a film and conveying that in words that make us feel...whether we've seen the film or not. And if, as in this case, it's a film I haven't seen, you make me want to track it down and watch it at once.

    Beautifully written, my friend. Thank you.

  3. Pat (and anyone else who may care) this film is being shown on TCM tomorrow afternoon! Catch it if you can because they only show it once a year during Oscar month.

  4. Rupert, your article has really fired my enthusiasm for seeing this film. It was already on today's agenda - but now I'm really excited. I've never seen it before. It will be my first time.
    I hope it's gentle.

  5. My dear Rupert...I am so glad you helped me discover this film. As a counselor, I have seen people like Margaret. Dame Edith Evans' performance is nothing short of astonishing. She captured the loneliness and desolation like few actresses really ever could have. The only one I can think of that has a comparable ability is Lillian Gish.

    A beautiful piece of work...well, three beautiful pieces of work...Evans, the movie, and your writing. Wonderful, as I ever, and exactly as I have come to expect...I learn something new and enticing every time.

  6. Thanks so much for the reminder that "The Whisperers" was on Friday. After viewing it again, I was deeply touched by Edith Evans' character but had forgotten (or been too obtuse to notice the first time) that the story has quite a bit of humor laced into the tale. Evans' haughty non sequiturs and her delusions do have a comic element as well as a poignancy, and I like the conversation she has with the visiting civil servant when he encourages her to get rid of the piles of newspapers heaped in a room of her apartment.

    Eric Portman was exceptionally good as the shabby husband too. I would like to see more of his non-Powell and Pressburger work in the future.

    Thanks again for writing this piece.

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  8. Moira, RE: the civil servant scene, one of my favorite lines is a humorous one, when she is discussing with the social worker a new pair of shoes, she says: "I'd like a nice style, nothing racy."
    Cracks me up every time.

  9. I love this movie! I especially like the sympathetic public assistance worker. The scene where is tells the psychiatrist working with Mrs. Ross "That must be a very rewarding moment. When you tell the Mrs Ross' of the world that they're nobody." The deflated ego expression on Doc's face is priceless!

  10. Rupert - Recently watched this movie and was at a loss as how to frame my opinion about it. Your review was pithy, intelligent and had the right balance of actor background which is sometimes missing from other articles. Thanks and keep up the good work.



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