“Critics are very impressed by camera movement and what have you, but audiences are impressed by performance.” – Bryan Forbes1
To those familiar with his work, the mention of the name ‘Bryan Forbes’ can conjure up several different things. Some may instinctively recall the young Forbes’s vivid performance as the milquetoast Eric in the definitive, Alastair Sim-starring production of An Inspector Calls (Guy Hamilton, 1954); others recognise him as the dependable director of crowd-pleasing hits such as Whistle Down The Wind (1961) or of the glitzy flop The Stepford Wives (1975), the latter whose lack of success the film’s screenwriter William Goldman petulantly blamed on Forbes’ miscasting of his wife Nanette Newman in a key role.2 More ardent cinephiles might jump straight to his 1960s British New Wave exemplars: Séance on a Wet Afternoon (1964) and – perhaps his most celebrated artistic venture, placing as it did the Hollywood actress and dancer Leslie Caron in a ‘kitchen-sink’ drama – The L-Shaped Room (1962). Forbes died in 2013 and, having been for over six decades a vastly energetic and prolific actor/writer/director/producer,3 in his final years he was rightly revered as a Korda-like figure: a gilded doyen, with his close friend and colleague Richard Attenborough, of the “establishment” of British cinema. His BAFTA tribute – not improperly – referred to him as a “Renaissance Man”.4 Yet it remains something of a mystery that hardly anyone now mentions the finest thing Forbes ever did, which was to write and direct The Whisperers in 1967.
As perhaps befits an uncategorisable polymath like Forbes, there was an intrinsic tussle in his work – one which can be glimpsed in microcosm in The Whisperers – between the melodramatic tendencies of exportable studio fare and the aesthetic and political principles of the neo-realist tendency of the time, traditionally designated as the British New Wave. Launched by the cultural and commercial impact of three films – Saturday Night & Sunday Morning (Karel Reisz, 1960); A Taste of Honey (Tony Richardson, 1961) and This Sporting Life (Lindsay Anderson, 1963) – the freshness and energy which underpinned the stripped-back, hyper-naturalistic ‘kitchen-sink’ dramas of the 1960s not only showcased new British directors, but also attracted numerous foreign auteurs: Roman Polanski, Michaelangelo Antonioni, Joseph Losey, Sidney Lumet and, ironically (given his infamous and oft-quoted contempt for British cinema) François Truffaut.5 Despite operating within that exciting, proliferant movement, Forbes never met with Reisz or Richardson: the British New Wave was not a movement characterised by collusion. His own sensibilities strayed closer to those of Powell & Pressburger’s vision of Britain than Lindsay Anderson’s – politically a conservative, he was the opposite of his good friend Anderson in this respect. Furthermore, his debut film Whistle Down the Wind was directly influenced by the classicist René Clement’s Jeux Interdits (1952).
Forbes’ cinema, even his kitchen-sink films, tended to come down on the side of dreamers and poets against the corrosive, asphyxiating effect of society and its institutions. The Whisperers is no different, portraying a character supposedly being assisted by the state, but for whom all that remains of value in her life is fantasy. It’s a stark and disarming existentialist study of ageing, using exiguous, naturalistic dialogue and – in common with its New Wave siblings – rejecting anything in the frame which might equate to glamour. The film switches focus at its halfway point from the descriptive towards the narrative, yet refuses to shake off its deeply unsettling pall of inevitability. Its title suggests a ghost story and, despite no actual metaphysical elements at all, its sound design and cinematography (the latter by Séance on a Wet Afternoon’s Gerry Turpin) might not disabuse a viewer of this initial sentiment. Where The Whisperers rises above the rest of Forbes’ work is in the masking of its traces of optimism beneath a discomfiting, all-enveloping dystopian shroud.
Shot in a suburb of Manchester which had yet to be redeveloped after the war, the built environment of the film – a combination of soulless prefabricated boxes and piles of discarded rubble – resembles a futuristic hellscape wherein the central character, Mrs Ross (Edith Evans), plays out her own survival drama. As an old aged pensioner with no independent means of support (her son is a criminal and her jobless husband has abandoned her) Mrs Ross lives alone in a single room apartment and relies for money on National Assistance, a means-tested government safety net designed for the poorest in society. She is, by all objectively verifiable standards, mentally ill: the “whisperers” of the title are the people she imagines are living in the walls of her house. They spy on her – a dripping tap provides a neat audio-visual conceit – while she talks to them, giving her monologues a dramatic context. The first forty minutes of the film constitute a mesmeric, nightmarish depiction of institutionalised abandonment, almost on a par with the ritual mountain myth of The Ballad of Narayama (Shohei Imamura, 1983), as Mrs Ross is forced to scrounge for soup in church (she is required to sing a hymn before being fed) and to catch a few minutes with her feet on the hot pipe in the local public library before being admonished by an official. Too proud to plead (she fantasises that she is due a sizeable fortune from the sale of her late father’s estate “in the Argentine”) Mrs Ross demands a new pair of shoes from the Assistance Office, which triggers a home visit to ensure that she is spending her pittance properly – and that her shoes are in sufficiently poor state to be replaced.
What distinguishes The Whisperers from many archetypal cinematic representations of ageing is the utter refusal of an emotional outlet for the character’s central predicament and consequently, for the audience. The story features no companionship as in Harold and Maude (Hal Ashby, 1971) and The Sunshine Boys (Herbert Ross, 1975); no heroism such as in Ikuru (Akira Kurosawa, 1952) or Gran Torino (Clint Eastwood, 2008); and no discernible emotional or physical journey such as in Wild Strawberries (Ingmar Bergman, 1957) or The Straight Story (David Lynch, 1999). Even in a punishingly melancholy film like Amour (Michael Haneke, 2012) which depicts two birds in a cage growing old, while outside the cage is a wasteland, at least the birds have each other. In The Whisperers, when the government blackmails Mrs Ross’s husband into moving back in with her, he accepts purely on financial grounds, using her meagre funds to sleep with prostitutes. Their marital interaction, beyond one or two banalities about money, is completely void. On one occasion he climbs into bed with her, saying, icily: “are you awake?….never mind, you’ve got nothing I want”.
Yet this singularly implacable and strangely seductive pessimism – while affecting and powerful – is far from suffocating. The sheer technicity of the performances stands out in the first instance. Forbes was regularly lauded by critics for his facility with actors and his influence in the industry brought him access to the very finest available talent. Taking the central and all-encompassing role of Mrs Ross is the titanic Shakespearian actress Dame Edith Evans, aged 79 at the time of shooting. Forbes revered Evans – writing a biography of her in 1977.6 – but there was some nervousness on the part of the studio about her age and suitability for the role, a nervousness which turned out to be unfounded when she turned up to the set line-perfect. Evans captures the faux hauteurs of her character with the skill of someone with sixty years of classical acting experience, (she created two roles for George Bernard Shaw and played Cleopatra and Lady Macbeth on the stage and Miss Weston and Lady Bracknell7 on screen), but her silence and vulnerability, punctuated throughout by an occasional glint in the eye – implying madness, but also a sense of contentment and acceptance, especially at the film’s end – is revelatory. Surrounded by malevolence and tough love, she carries the emotional dimensions of the film in their entirety: in the words of the critic, Alexander Walker: “(the film) is rooted, from start to finish, like a suspension bridge, in (her) performance”.8 On top of this, Forbes could call on one of Powell & Pressburger’s favourite actors, Eric Portman, in the twilight of his career, to play her reprobate husband with a cold and pitiful air of misplaced pride.
John Barry’s luscious, achingly beautiful score was composed in parallel with the progress of the shoot (Barry visited the set and was shown rushes) and works to some degree in counterpoint with the often-humdrum events on screen. It features long, melancholic oboe and violin solo passages, escorting Evans’ movements and mannerisms with an intimacy which rises above tragedy and into the realms of longing and imagination.
As a dramatist, once Forbes had taken the time to establish the Stygian atmosphere of the film, he could combine the emotional pull of Evans’ performance with the sense of constant threat from those around her, to deliver a gripping story while rowing back on any sentimentality. Thus, a central sequence which involves Evans being drugged, robbed, and shockingly dumped in the street outside her home, is directed as if its horrifying events were commonplace. Forbes’ occasional taste for melodrama, which might have broken the spell he had cast hitherto, is nowhere to be seen here.
What was it about Mrs Ross’s story which provoked Forbes so much that he laced his film with an uncommon causticity? For this is a most unflinching depiction of societal breakdown and squalid neglect – of places and people – from a compassionate filmmaker who had always elided anger in his work. The peculiar, almost surreal effect of Evans’s gentle, unexpected understatement in the face of such desolation acts on the viewer like a priest giving confession to a convict facing the gallows. Faced with the weight of their futility, the simple rituals of human survival, executed without fuss, become laceratingly poignant.
In the context of a love letter to 1967 from 2017, it is notable that two films from the past year stand out as concomitant to The Whisperers, pleading a further case for its long overdue recognition. Ken Loach was a New Wave contemporary of Forbes,9 yet of his films the latest: I, Daniel Blake (Ken Loach, 2016) about the struggle of a sexagenarian with the benefits office, is The Whisperers’ closest relation. Loach attacks the failures of the state from the left in I, Daniel Blake while Forbes did so in The Whisperers from the right, yet the obvious similarities between Forbes’ traumnovelle and Loach’s red-raw polemic are sobering. The other is No Home Movie (Chantal Akerman, 2016), an intimate documentary portrait of the director’s ageing mother filled with long, unvarnished silent takes of its subject which are visibly redolent of those of The Whisperers, as well as its own desolate, dry desert landscapes (shot in Israel) which provide an ominous blank space as grey as Forbes’ cloudy Mancunian sky: a space upon which the audience can project their own thoughts and feelings, of sadness or of the regret of time passing and things lost, missed or forgotten.
- Interview with Simon Callow, BFI, 17 January 2012 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I-aYWa3NrCU ↩
- William Goldman, Adventures in the Screen Trade (Warner Books, New York, 1983), pp. 398-404. ↩
- Forbes ran the MGM studios at Elstree for a short, fecund period between 1969 and 1971, greenlighting numerous critical and commercial successes, including The Railway Children (1970, Lionel Jeffries) and The Go-Between (Joseph Losey, 1971). ↩
- British Academy of Film and Television Arts: A Tribute to Bryan Forbes CBE (Quentin Falk, 25 May 2007). ↩
- Specifically: Repulsion (Roman Polanski, 1965); Blow-up (Michelangelo Antonioni, 1966); Eva (Joseph Losey, 1962); The Damned (Joseph Losey, 1963); The Servant (Joseph Losey, 1963); King & Country (Joseph Losey, 1964); The Hill (Sidney Lumet, 1965) and Fahrenheit 451 (François Truffaut, 1966). ↩
- Bryan Forbes, Ned’s Girl: Life of Edith Evans (Elm Tree Books, London, 1977). ↩
- The latter two in Tom Jones (Tony Richardson, 1963) and The Importance of Being Earnest (Anthony Asquith, 1952) respectively. ↩
- Alexander Walker, Hollywood, England (M. Joseph, London, July 1974). ↩
- Poor Cow (Ken Loach, 1967); Cathy Come Home (Ken Loach, 1966). ↩