The Whisperers
Kl Studio Classics // Unrated // $18.49 // January 14, 2020
Review by Stuart Galbraith IV | posted February 24, 2020
Highly Recommended
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Somewhat forgotten today, The Whisperers (1967) is a British film directed by actor-turned-writer/director Bryan Forbes that was much-acclaimed in its day. Its 79-year-old star, Dame Edith Evans, was nominated for an Academy Award (she lost to Katharine Hepburn for Guess Who's Coming to Dinner), but Evans won the BAFTA prize that year, as well as awards at the Berlin International Film Festival, a Golden Globe, and selected by the National Board of Review and the New York Film Critics Circle.

The bleak and rather depressing film captures the dire conditions of impoverished seniors like the eccentric character Evans plays, particularly through the striking black-and-white cinematography of Gerry Turpin (Sťance on a Wet Afternoon, The Last of Shelia) and the vivid use of the alarming slum environment of the once-thriving textile center neighborhoods of Manchester.

Margaret Ross (Evans) lives alone in a tiny, ground-floor flat in North England. Barely subsisting on National Assistance from the British government, she supplements her diet at a Christian soup kitchen, and warms her cold feet -- made worse by inadequate shoes -- warming them on the heating pipes at the local public library.

Possibly due to advancing senility, she imagines voices coming from her old wireless (radio) and a leaky kitchen pipe, and complains about the noise from the interracial family living above her, believing the mother (Nanette Newman, Forbes's real-life wife) is being held against her will, and she also believes others enter her flat when she's not at home. She complains about all this to the local police sergeant (Jack Austin), who realizes she's imagining all these things. Only Mr. Conrad (Gerald Sim), the case worker at the National Assistance office where she claims her benefits, takes any interest in her well-being.

Her son, Charlie (Ronald Fraser), a small-time criminal, stashes some stolen money in a closet in the ludicrously small bedroom, where Mrs. Ross hoards newspapers. When a case worker (Kenneth Griffith) expresses concern about the hoarding, she moves the newspapers to the closet and discovers the money, unwisely sharing news about her "windfall" with a stranger, middle-aged Mrs. Noonan (Avis Bunnage).

She invites Mrs. Ross out for a glass of port, gets her drunk and essentially kidnaps her, taking her back to her flat, where her cruel husband (Michael Robbins) grabs the lion's share of the loot, and allows the two adult children to rifle through the old lady's purse for scraps. Unceremoniously, they dump her limp body on the street outside her flat. Discovered by neighbors the next morning, Mrs. Ross has developed life-threatening pneumonia. After a long physical and mental recovery, well-meaning but clueless doctors and social workers (including Robin Bailey at his most pompous and Leonard Rossiter) decide to reunite Mrs. Ross with her long-estranged husband (Eric Portman), a gambling addict that deserted her years before.

Filmed kitchen sink style on a modest ($400,000) budget, The Whisperers is almost unbearably bleak. The Manchester neighborhoods where the film was shot are like something out of Charles Dickens with a dash of blitzkrieg destruction. It's hard to imagine so many Britons living in such depressing surroundings as late as 1967, made all the worse by Mrs. Ross's hoarding and inability to look after herself. Empty milk bottles and opened tin cans litter the kitchen, plaster falls from the ceiling, piles upon piles of newspapers are everywhere. She is a woman with virtually nothing to show for her long life, and yet predators like the Noonans and her long-missing husband are only too willing to steal what little remains. The police are polite but dismissive, the local soup kitchen grumpily insists the poor sing (hymns) for their supper, and the local librarians look upon poor, elderly patrons as a nuisance.

Only kindly Mr. Conrad shows any empathy toward her, even visiting her in the hospital and obviously concerned about her treatment. He knows that, once recovered, she'll be dumped back into the same system that brought her there in the first place.

The picture, obviously, starkly sheds light on these forgotten seniors and the horrible conditions they endured, while advocating better care. The National Assistance program ended the year the movie was released, replaced with the Supplementary Benefit, though whether The Whisperers had any impact in supporting its implementation, or if it made conditions measurably better is unknown to this writer.

Edith Evans is marvelous as Mrs. Ross. For most of the film she has little dialogue, Forbes instead focusing on her frail features and expressive eyes, darting about with paranoia in the early scenes, and then for a long time virtually lifeless following her life-threatening pneumonia and mental decline.

John Barry wrote the delicate score, an atypical work, which complements the mood nicely.

Video & Audio

Boasting a new 2K scan, Kino's Blu-ray of The Whisperers looks pristine in its 1.66:1 widescreen and black-and-white presentation. The audio, DTS-HD Master Audio mono, is similarly good. Region "A" encoded.

Extra Features

Supplements are limited to a well-researched audio commentary by film historian Kat Ellinger.

Parting Thoughts

While not what one would call a great "date" movie, The Whisperers is extremely well made and beautifully acted, almost a time machine to a time and place in British history not long ago when seniors where all but forced to fend for themselves in third-world poverty. At the center, of course, is Edith Evans's vivid performance, and the movie is Highly Recommended.

Stuart Galbraith IV is the Kyoto-based film historian currently restoring a 200-year-old Japanese farmhouse.

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