Saturday, June 18, 2022

Audrey Hepburn Faithfully Serves The Nun’s Story

          One of the most absorbing and moving dramas of the 1950’s, director Fred Zinnemann’s The Nun’s Story avoids the sensationalism often found in films presenting a “behind the scenes” look into convent life, instead detailing, in a tasteful-yet-riveting manner, the challenging process involved in a young woman seeking to find faith in her chosen calling. Anchored by subtle, sublime work by Audrey Hepburn, Zinnemann vividly brings the insightful Robert Anderson screenplay (based on the 1956 Kathryn C. Hulme best-selling novel) to life with his characteristic solid craftsmanship and fine attention-to-detail, while gaining distinct, striking performances by each member of his impressive cast. Franz Waxman’s lush score also does much to set the proper tone throughout the movie, whether it be somber, uplifting or, as is frequently the case, ambiguously somewhere in-between. Although the film runs 2.5 hours, Zinnemann and company ensure the rapt attention of audiences is upheld throughout, as each intriguing plot element, including an enthralling sequence set in the Belgian Congo, smoothly builds towards the film’s poignant denouement.

In the demanding lead role of Sister Luke, who faces many internal faith-based conflicts as she pursues a religious life among the sisterhood, Audrey Hepburn possibly reaches her apex as a dramatic star. Beautifully illustrating each trial Sister Luke faces, Hepburn utilizes her natural gifts as an instinctive screen performer in striking fashion. Hepburn’s trademark charm and grace are in evidence, but there’s also a stark tenseness and emotional depth to her work that is stunning. In several passages Sister Luke is overwhelmed by pressures placed on her faith, and Hepburn does an extraordinary job in illustrating these moments in a quiet-yet-powerful manner that is unlike the emoting normally seen in big dramatic scenes. Hepburn is so in tune with the character that, with impressive force and skill, she simultaneously demonstrates a controlled demeanor befitting the role, while still vividly depicting the turmoil Sister Luke is facing as she tacitly breaks down from the profuse stress brought on by her duties and religious calling. It’s fascinating to watch the dichotomy Hepburn maintains between calm repose and passionate emotion at play in these scenes, and the adeptness Hepburn utilizes to covey all of Sister Luke’s varying moods in an authentic, magnificent manner.

Peter Finch brings magnetism and force to his role of Dr. Fortunati, who shows both toughness and compassion towards Sister Luke as she attempts to perform her duties as his nurse while adapting to life in the Congo. Finch suggests an intriguing sexual undercurrent during his exchanges with Hepburn, which heightens the mood in their confrontational scenes, which finds Sister Luke battling her feelings towards the doctor, along with her professional and faith-driven problems. In the only other substantial male role, Dean Jagger offers a sympathetic portrayal of Sister Luke’s understanding father, Hubert, who is both supportive of and conflicted by his daughter’s choice to enter the convent.

An imposing ensemble cast adds richly to the film’s effectiveness, with several stand-out Mothers making memorable impressions. Edith Evans bestows a strong authoritative presence as the Rev. Mother Emmanuel, who provides sage leadership to the novices, and adds great dramatic potency to her final, moving meeting with Sister Luke. Mildred Dunnock is also seen to noticeable advantage, bringing her typical warmth and earnestness to her role as the placid Mother Margharita, who Sister Luke encounters upon her introduction to the order.  

On the other side of the spectrum from these firm-but-understanding, largely benevolent figures, Colleen Dewhurst is seen briefly and unforgettably as a dangerous, unpredictable patient (known as the “Archangel”) Sister Luke faces while working in a sanatorium. Dewhurst’s exciting, ominous work momentarily places the film on a dark, unnerving level, to the point that afterwards some audience members might carry a more apprehensive manner as subsequent elements unfold, being unsure exactly when another shocking plot point might come along to jolt them and Sister Luke out of their seats.

Ruth White, as the ambiguous Mother Marcella, adopts a calm, imperceptive demeanor, and makes a major impact sharing possibly the most fascinating scene with Hepburn, wherein she presents Sister Luke with a dilemma concerning an upcoming oral medical test, which has both Sister Luke and the audience questioning how far the Reverend Mother is going, and if her request really has to do with a humility-based “sacrifice for God” she suggests, or if some ulterior motive is at work. White maintains a controlled, poker-faced countenance throughout this episode and during a later, brief interaction with Sister Luke, leaving it unclear exactly what her agenda is; the enigmatic nature of these scenes (expertly delineated by Zinnemann) and White’s performance are hard to forget, as days later a viewer may still be wondering, “What was the deal with that Mother, anyway?” Among a remarkable list of other well-known performers doing exceptional work are Peggy Ashcroft, Beatrice Straight, Barbara O’Neil, Patricia Collinge and Patricia Bosworth.

A major critical and financial success upon its release, with eight Oscar nominations and New York Film Critics Awards for Zinnemann and Hepburn (who also garnered the British Academy Award), as well as a place among the top-five grossing films of the year with $6,000,000 in rentals (according to Variety), The Nun’s Story somehow hasn’t attained the staying power and renown of other top Hepburn films such as Roman Holiday and Breakfast at Tiffany’s. It’s unfortunate, as fans who fully embrace Hepburn in her role as an enduring fashion icon and classic romantic screen leading lady from Hollywood’s Golden Era might be missing out on possibly her finest dramatic hour onscreen, as well as one of the most engrossing dramas of the 1950’s. Whereas the ideal, most recognizable Hepburn “look” might be found onscreen in Holiday, Sabrina, Funny Face and Tiffany’s, those wishing to see a fully-committed Hepburn offer a complex, mesmerizing example of her substantial, intuitive dramatic gifts as a first-class screen artist will find a richly satisfying experience awaits them via the divine Nun’s Story.