Whisper Down The Day, Whisper Back The Walls
DIRECTED BY BRYAN FORBES/1967
STREET DATE: January 14th, 2020/KINO LORBER STUDIO CLASSICS
Based on a 1961 novel by Robert Nicolson, British director Bryan Forbes’s 1967 film The Whisperers stars Dame Edith Evans as the elderly, isolated Mrs. Ross. A tale of social realism with a stark difference, The Whisperers addresses the essential mystery that lies at the heart of a character whose impoverished life and reduced circumstances are plainly apparent from frame one, yet who unaccountably possesses an indomitable nature unexplained by her surroundings. Indeed, what unknown force drives a Mrs. Ross?
Finding a bottomless reserve of strength and purpose in her daily ritual of coffee, tea, toast, and newspapers, Mrs. Ross’s cluttered, cloistered, and confined two-room flat somehow contains an entire world of imagination and self-sufficiency which the dreary outside world lacks. Trudging down endless slickened cobblestones in shoes badly in need of mending, which “let in the rain”, Mrs. Ross’s round of errands at the police station, welfare office, church hall, and library reading room — the last of which allows a few precious minutes of stealthy stocking-drying past the librarian’s watchful eye — preserve the old lady’s independence while fueling a rich inner monologue of unbroken fantasy. Throwing her hat on the table, returning from her daily routines to the comfort of familiar surroundings, Mrs. Ross answers the sounding-board of her own echoing intelligence, or possibly an instinct of self-preservation inscrutable to casual viewers (or, indeed, auditors), with a haunting refrain bordering, perhaps, on the supernatural: “Are you there?”
Yes, Mrs. Ross hears voices. The trouble begins, though, when Mrs. Ross’s estranged, ne’er-do-well son (Ronald Fraser) drops off a mysterious package for safekeeping. Later, and accidentally, discovering the box filled with cash, the unexpected windfall fulfills Mrs. Ross’s deepest desire for lost riches and a rightfully restored (and possibly only imaginary; although who knows?) line of dispossessed inheritance. Setting forth a chain of circumstances that will come to involve a predatory woman (Avis Bunnage) and her odious working class family, a kindly National Assistance officer (Gerald Sim) who takes a bureaucratic interest in Mrs. Ross’s case, and eventually her long-lost and even more ne’er-do-well husband (Eric Portman), The Voices disappear from the middle portion of the film as Mrs. Ross’s carefully set routine and self-made environment become threatened. Their return at film’s end — along with the unbroken rituals and comforting disrepair of her flat — may signal triumph or tragedy for each viewer, depending of course on one’s similar or differing personality and/or point of view.
Highlighted by Bryan Forbes’s unobtrusive style, which communicates all information visually — the only vaguely subjective voiceover we hear in the film is Mrs. Ross self-dictating a letter to social services which we then hear Mr. Conrad (Sim) reading — the subtle dramatic thrust of the film is entirely carried by Dame Edith Evans’s astonishing performance as Mrs. Ross, which somehow engenders understanding of and sympathy towards the motives behind her character’s apparent “madness”. Or is it? The National Welfare board, the Town Council, the local police, her upstairs neighbors (Nanette Newman, Harry Baird) — the last of whom endure her racist projections on a black man “keeping” a white woman against her will — all have definite “views” on Mrs. Ross as a confused, harmless eccentric, but our own, more privileged cinematic perspective may offer an entirely different vantage on Mrs. Ross’s unheard voices.
Former actor Forbes made his first film as director on the subject of childhood imaginings, with young Hayley Mills and her siblings mistaking escaped convict Alan Bates for Jesus Christ in 1961’s Whistle Down the Wind, and with The Whisperers found its perfect complement with the self-protective “delusions” of aging. Forbes and Evans strongly collaborate, vastly aided by cinematographer Gerry Taupin’s unvarnished black-and-white images and composer John Barry’s almost subliminally-set woodwind score, to further demonstrate the century-plus film-universality of elderly faces. Like the very young, the very old communicate onscreen with an expressive force that requires no further comment. (Offering here the lined, wrinkled cover image of Mrs. Ross peering curiously to some unknown point in the distance as ample proof.) The innocence of children is regained by the unyielding rectitude of the elderly, and if Mrs. Ross hears voices, who are we to say they aren’t real?
Kino Lorber offers a strong 2K master of a film well known in its native country but possibly overlooked in our own. Adding valuable context to this feature-length disquisition on aging, Kat Ellinger illuminates the social and historical contours of Mrs. Ross’s daily doings, the sympathy for her cocoon-like lifestyle vastly appreciated by this viewer/auditor in particular. We may not all hear voices, and not all those that do may be helped by them, but far be it for any of us to question the whispering balance of anyone’s personal mysteries.
The images used in this review are credited to DVDBeaver, some of which (but not all) are taken directly from Kino Lorber’s Blu-ray release. Thanks to Kino Lorber for providing a Blu-ray copy for review.