No one wants to think about growing old, becoming infirm and having to rely on others for assistance, particularly after a life of relative independence. While some are lucky enough to have family and friends to help out, many elderly people have no one for support and are left to fend for themselves among strangers. The situation becomes even more desperate without savings or financial assistance. Certainly this isn’t a topic that the commercial cinema has often explored for obvious reasons and great films on this subject are rare indeed but occasionally a masterpiece has emerged. Vittorio De Sica’s Umberto D. , Akira Kurosawa’s Ikiru , and Yasujiro Ozu’s Tokyo Story  are prime examples while a handful of other films remain memorable for the performances alone – Victor Moore and Beulah Bondi in Make Way for Tomorrow , Art Carney in Harry and Tonto  and Edith Evans in The Whisperers , Bryan Forbes’s often overlooked and forgotten adaptation of Robert Nicolson’s novel, Mrs. Ross.
Reminiscent of the British New Wave dramas of the late fifties/early sixties which focused on the working class and social issues, The Whisperers is set in a grim, rundown neighborhood where the central character, Mrs. Ross (Edith Evans), lives alone in a dark, cluttered apartment, long since abandoned by her husband and her son. Barely subsisting on the small stipend she receives from the National Assistance, Mrs. Ross lives such an isolated existence that she imagines voices speaking to her though it may only be the dripping faucets, creaking floorboards and rattling windowpanes of her flat. Her daily routine is suddenly interrupted by a brief visit from her disreputable son Charlie (Ronald Fraser) who hides a parcel of stolen money in her closet. Mrs. Ross’s discovery of the parcel and the bad luck it brings propels the film to its inevitable ending but not before a robbery, a bout of pneumonia, psychiatric tests and an attempt at reconciliation with her wastrel husband (Eric Portman) do further damage to her fragile psyche. Famous in England for her brilliant stage performances, Edith Evans had a reputation that was equal to Peggy Ashcroft’s or Sybil Thorndike’s in the theatre but had made very few films in the course of her acting career despite acclaimed performances in The Queen of Spades , The Importance of Being Earnest  and Tom Jones . Forbes said, “It seemed a tragic waste that nobody had really written a film to make full use of her extraordinary talents.” So when he read Robert Nicolson’s novel he “seized the opportunity to create a major screen role for her” and entered into a partnership with two American producers, Ronald Shedlo and Michael Laughlin, to make The Whisperers.
In his biography, Edith Evans: Ned’s Girl, Forbes recalled the making of the film: “Nicolson’s novel had been set in Glasgow, and the only stipulation David Picker [a United Artists executive] made to me was that I avoid Scottish accents because he felt that this would work to the film’s disadvantage in the United States…I therefore set the film in the Midlands and Edith agreed to assume a flat accent. I elected to shoot the film in the Moss Side area of Manchester; in 1966 this was in the process of becoming a planners’ Hiroshima; whole areas had been flattened by the bulldozers in preparation for a petrified concrete forest of high-rise tenements. It was a waste land…It provided me with the requisite desolation I needed for my story and I moved my film unit into the area.” The Whisperers was the first time Forbes had ever worked with Evans, who was 78 at the time, and he had no pre-conceived ideas about her performance or direction. The production was scheduled for an eight-week shoot on a shoestring budget of $400,000 and Edith’s role required her to be on the screen in almost every scene. “I can’t claim to have directed Edith in the way that I have directed other artists,” Forbes wrote. “I positioned my cameras carefully to catch every nuance of her extraordinary performance and from time to time I was able to guide her, but for the most part I was content to be led by her…She conserved her energy between takes and frequently dozed off in her chair whenever we had to wait for the light. But she was always word perfect and seldom needed a second-take…We employed a great number of old-age pensioners in one sequence and she mingled with them and was lost amongst them, anonymous and nondescript. After the first hour or so they seemed scarcely conscious of her as Edith Evans and engaged her in conversations about their personal lives which she entered into, slipping, like an undercover agent, into a world she had never known, and being accepted there. She never asked favours, never demanded special privileges, worked all hours in atrocious weather sometimes, and would never leave the set without first asking my permission.”
When The Whisperers had its U.S. premiere in New York, an interviewer said to Forbes afterwards, ‘Obviously, Mr. Forbes, you and Dame Edith spent many months preparing her for her role as Mrs. Ross.’
‘No,’ I said, ‘we scarcely discussed the characterization at all.’ He couldn’t accept that answer.
‘But, surely, she lived amongst these people and studied them.’
I shook my head.
‘Well, what’s her method then? She must have a method.’
‘Her method is that she is simply a great actress.’
Everyone seemed to agree because Edith Evans received the Golden Bear for Best Actress at the 1967 Berlin Film Festival, The British Film Academy’s Best Actress accolade, the New York Film Critics’ Best Actress of the Year and finally was nominated for a Best Actress Oscar; she was up against Faye Dunaway in Bonnie and Clyde, Anne Bancroft in The Graduate, Audrey Hepburn in Wait Until Dark and Katharine Hepburn, who won the statuette for her performance in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?. The supporting cast of The Whisperers is also exceptional with Bryan Forbes’s wife Nanette Newman and Harry Baird as upstairs neighbors who are irritated by Mrs. Ross’s meddlesome behavior, Avis Bunnage as a predatory stranger, and Ronald Fraser and Eric Portman, respectfully, as Mrs. Ross’s criminal son and her unsympathetic ex-husband. While there was nothing but praise for Evans’s work in The Whisperers, other aspects of the film were considered less than successful. The British film magazine Sight and Sound noted, “It all adds up to a nightmare world which might be acceptable if it were presented as part of the fantasy in Mrs. Ross’s muddled mind. But there is no evidence in the treatment that such a view was intended. It is all presented as if it were being offered as serious social comment on life in Britain today. And it is being accepted as such by American reviewers.”
Even American critics such as Pauline Kael had their criticisms: “…this film gives one the feeling that it should be loose, discovered material. But though the director, Bryan Forbes, is talented, everything – the furniture, the streets, the people’s expressions – looks planned for the camera, and we are led to see things in such a limited way that even what is intelligent and well acted seems false.”
Admittedly, The Whisperers seems overly schematic at times with an excess of melodramatic plot twists, despite the realistic look of the movie (lensed by cinematographer Gerry Turpin) and the subtle but evocative score by composer John Barry. Yet, it remains well worth seeing for Edith Evans’s unforgettable portrayal of Mrs. Ross. She would go on to work twice more for Bryan Forbes in The Madwoman of Chaillot  and The Slipper and the Rose .
For many years, The Whisperers seemed to be a forgotten film, rarely showing up on television or in repertory cinema venues. It popped up briefly on VHS and then on DVD in 2010. Thanks to KL Studio Classics, a special edition Blu-ray of the film was released in January 2020 featuring a new 2k remastering and an audio commentary by film historian Kat Ellinger. *This is a revised and expanded version of an article that originally appeared on the Turner Classic Movies website.
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