The Whisperers (1967)
Well, bloody hell, here’s a film an old bugger shouldn’t watch alone. Old Jack here did and…wow, is it on the nose with the old-age-is-dreadful schtick. It stars Dame Edith Evans, and she is terrific, but the message (when the film isn’t being silly) is one of desperation. Back in 1966, when National Assistance was still a thing and you could go beg a pound off a civil servant and his posh accent, social isolation, this social begging, the rank, teasing madness of solitude were – it seems – commonplace for oldsters. Dame Edith, here as Mrs Ross, spends the first half hour pootling around her empty life, stressing to sounds in the flat. “Are you there?” she keeps asking of the clanks, clunks and drips. No answer – not even The Whisperers.
The scenes with Dame Edith being tortured by her solitary reality are terrific. And left me really quite cold. Old Jack here was blessed by family: Mrs Jack left on her great adventure at the very last minute, Steve and Jacketta have stuck by me since, and this home, grim as it may be, is at least peopled. I don’t have to sing along in a church to get some sustenance (Mrs Ross does, and gets mocked for her energy). I don’t have to sneak into a library reading room to run my feet across a heating pipe (Mrs Ross does, and gets frowned at by a librarian in full-on-twat mode). And I don’t have to do the National Assistance begging – bullshitting about waiting for money to dodge the face-to-face shame of asking for cash enough to eat. Mrs Ross does, facing off to the gloriously gentle Gerald Sim as Mr Conrad. All awful and sad.
The trouble is…and I suspect this opinion won’t be popular…this stark, ’60s eulogy to the forgotten oldsters, goes wildly awry for most of its middle section. Other people enter Dame Edith’s world. Classy acts all, their characters spoil the poetic cool of her life. Ronald Fraser is tubby son Ronnie, all shifty looks and thievery. He hides money that Mrs Ross finds, bolting her back into enlivened pride. Bad people cluster around her to take it, abandoning her in the night after getting her off her head. The scenes don’t so much work as another layer of telling sadness at society’s treatment of oldsters as a pointless slap of melodrama.
Of course, there’s also the visual snapshot of Britain at the time. Rebuilding, bringing black and white faces together into a fresh society (Harry Baird and Nanette Newman pop by from upstairs to be beautiful, young and kinda foundational), whilst tolerating caricatures of the old world: stand-up Michael Robbins and family in ruffty-tuffty mode. But, again, it all spoils the stillness.
Cue Mrs Ross’s long-lost husband, played by the unnecessary but splendid and almost magically posh-common Eric Portman. Nudged by the authorities, he moves back in long enough to take his wife’s remaining cash to a prostitute and negotiate with weird confidence over a “knee-trembler”. Different times. Dame Edith seems on the way back to loneliness as the two lie beside one another after Portman’s Archie gets in from the alfresco pleasuring. I know it was an agonising beginning, but old Jack wanted the steady-eye on Mrs Ross to come back. Which it does. Clank, clunk, drip… “are you there?”
I’d never seen The Whisperers before this week. And, while I’d very happily never watch its dystopian pondering again, it says a few things about old age that remain incisive. Never mind the silliness with her family, Dame Edith is abandoned, lonely to the point of mad, scuttling around the edges of what a community has to offer just to live. There but for the grace…
Watch this if you’re young and ready to bear the guilt. Watch this if you’re old and surrounded by love. If you’re alone, don’t. I’m warning you; really, really.
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