Backstairs rebellion

The detailing of a domestic tyranny makes for more compelling cinema than Kenneth Branagh's tired am-dram hokum. By Adam Mars-Jones; SISTER MY SISTER Nancy Meckler (15) IN THE BLEAK MID WINTER Kenneth Branagh (15)

All the reference points for Sister My Sister are theatrical: Wendy Kesselman's script is drawn from her stage play, which was based on the same French provincial murders that inspired Genet's The Maids. Nancy Meckler, the director, also comes from the theatre, but her first essay in a new medium is fully cinematic.

Meckler stylises the film in one sense by keeping the action firmly inside the house of the widow Madame Danzard (Julie Walters), and particularly by eliminating men from the world it shows us. When madame's maids Christine (Joely Richardson) and her sister Lea (Jodhi May) go to a photographer's studio for instance, it is their first bit of rebelliousness to think that servants can aspire to be represented - the man behind the camera is only a coaxing voice and a pair of hands.

The acting, though, is anything but stylised, full of convincing detail. At the beginning of the film, Christine and madame have a bizarrely happy relationship based on shared house-pride. Christine positively likes working in a household where her employer puts on a white glove to caress the most out-of-the way curves of the banisters in search of dust. Although madame is in her quiet way tyrannical, the two women have a common enemy in domestic disorder. Christine's mouth tightens in pleasure at her own efficiency.

But when Lea arrives, Christine has someone to share things with and reveals new sides of herself: resentment of their mother and the occasional outburst of psychotic anger. There is tension above stairs, too, since madame can neither bare to part with her sulky daughter Isabelle (Sophie Thursfield)) nor contemplate the social failure of having her left on the shelf. There are references to Isabelle having a fiance, but he is not even named, and we may think that this is just a piece of fantasy behind the dust-free facade.

The maids' fantasy is of saving up their wages and escaping the Danzards. At Christine's insistence they stop visiting their mother - who felt entitled to their entire income - so their day off becomes a day of wish fulfilment rather than duty. It is the only day they let their hair down (literally, in Lea's case). They sit in the park like ladies of leisure, and indeed like lovers, which they have gradually become. The house remains, for the time being, as spotless as a domestic interior in a Dutch painting, but something of the spirit of Impressionism enters the young women in the park, a certain restlessness and sense of rights, and their pleasures become all the more important for being so restricted.

It's as a piece of ensemble acting that Sister My Sister deserves most praise. Julie Walters, whose vitality can sometimes be exhausting, tones it down and gives what is certainly her subtlest performance to date. The authority that Mme Danzard claims for herself is menacing enough, but also slyly funny. She would as soon go naked into the street as play the piano without the rigid prompting of the metronome. When she and Isabelle play patience competitively, she is hell bent on winning but still can't resist the temptation of pointing out the opportunities her daughter has missed.

Kenneth Branagh's new film In the Bleak Midwinter is also an ensemble piece, but a much less assured one. In this, his sixth film as director, Branagh does not appear in front of the camera. But in compensation he has provided the script, which seems to be modelled on the less than classic Peter's Friends: a disparate group of people meet up to parade their insecurities, and finally to celebrate what they have in common - on this occasion, acting and the love of it.

Branagh is brave enough to let Noel Coward start the film singing "Why Must the Show Go On?" with the attendant risk that nothing the director shows us seems as clever or as clear-sighted. His hero Joe (Michael Maloney), who is having a crisis of professional confidence, hires a handful of no-hopers to put on a production of Hamlet over Christmas in the village where he grew up. The village is called Hope. The production will be in a good cause, to benefit the church where the play is being staged, which is threatened by developers.

For its first hour the film shows actors as utterly deluded. The Ophelia (Julia Sawalha) won't admit that she is short-sighted, and keeps falling over. The Gertrude (John Sessions) is an identikit theatrical queen. There's one drinker and one health nut, and so on. None of this seems to have any basis in experience: it's as if Branagh, wanting to shed his arch luvvie label, is trying to ingratiate himself with the audience by saying: everything you think about these silly people is true.

Then, stereotypically, traumas start to be displayed, the theatre queen has been rejected by the son he never knew - though the boy does send the occasional postcard (that's a trauma?). Other cast members need the approval of a parent, or some equally standard endorsement of their value. Next, alliances are forged - so arbitrarily that they could be chosen by Branagh at random - between the theatre queen and a lifelong homophobe (Richard Briers), who both revere Henry Irving; between the health nut and the production's designer (Celia Imrie). These two are kindred spirits because they share a suppressed playfulness apparently behind their humourless intensity. Never mind that the designer has been played as nine parts Edith Sitwell to one part Madonna (she tells the cast it's a good omen for the show if her nipples get stiff), and seemed at first to have her eye on Ophelia. Worthless, trashy Hollywood abruptly (and wholly unconvincingly) tempts Joe with mega bucks and mega fame. Will he be true to himself? In the end, Shakespeare transforms them all with his magic.

In the Bleak Midwinter is a film about theatre that manages to patronise both art forms. It's shot in black and white and on a low budget, but without any great resourcefulness. Michael Maloney, in particular, is lit so as to take all the grain from his face, and is enticed away from the low-key register where his acting seems truthful. Joan Collins as his agent does what she does best. She survives.

The film is intended to provide some seasonal uplift, set as it is in the run-up to Christmas. But In the Bleak Midwinter is only likely to end up as the answer to a riddle in a Christmas cracker: "What's broad and thin and weak and tired?"

n On release from Friday

Arts and Entertainment
'The Archers' has an audience of about five million
radioA growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried
Arts and Entertainment
Ready to open the Baftas, rockers Kasabian are also ‘great film fans’
musicExclusive: Rockers promise an explosive opening to the evening
Arts and Entertainment
Henry VIII played by Damien Lewis
tvReview: Scheming queens-in-waiting, tangled lines of succession and men of lowly birth rising to power – sound familiar?
Arts and Entertainment
Arts and Entertainment
Hell, yeah: members of the 369th Infantry arrive back in New York
booksWorld War Z author Max Brooks honours WW1's Harlem Hellfighters in new graphic novel
Arts and Entertainment
Beer as folk: Vincent Franklin and Cyril Nri (centre) in ‘Cucumber’
tvReview: This slice of gay life in Manchester has universal appeal
Arts and Entertainment
‘A Day at the Races’ still stands up well today
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tvAnd its producers have already announced a second season...
Arts and Entertainment
Kraftwerk performing at the Neue Nationalgalerie (New National Gallery) museum in Berlin earlier this month
musicWhy a bunch of academics consider German electropoppers Kraftwerk worthy of their own symposium
Arts and Entertainment
Icelandic singer Bjork has been forced to release her album early after an online leak

Arts and Entertainment
Colin Firth as Harry Hart in Kingsman: The Secret Service

Arts and Entertainment
Brian Blessed as King Lear in the Guildford Shakespeare Company's performance of the play

Arts and Entertainment
In the picture: Anthony LaPaglia and Martin Freeman in 'The Eichmann Show'

Arts and Entertainment
Anne Kirkbride and Bill Roache as Deirdre and Ken Barlow in Coronation Street

tvThe actress has died aged 60
Arts and Entertainment
Marianne Jean-Baptiste defends Joe Miller in Broadchurch series two

Arts and Entertainment
The frill of it all: Hattie Morahan in 'The Changeling'

Arts and Entertainment
Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny may reunite for The X Files

Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson, left, and Richard Hammond upset the locals in South America
A young woman punched a police officer after attending a gig by US rapper Snoop Dogg
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

    Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
    Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
    Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

    Comedians share stories of depression

    The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
    Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

    Has The Archers lost the plot?

    A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
    English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

    14 office buildings added to protected lists

    Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee
    World War Z author Max Brooks honours WW1's Harlem Hellfighters in new graphic novel

    Max Brooks honours Harlem Hellfighters

    The author talks about race, legacy and his Will Smith film option to Tim Walker
    Why the league system no longer measures up

    League system no longer measures up

    Jon Coles, former head of standards at the Department of Education, used to be in charge of school performance rankings. He explains how he would reform the system
    Valentine's Day cards: 5 best online card shops

    Don't leave it to the petrol station: The best online card shops for Valentine's Day

    Can't find a card you like on the high street? Try one of these sites for individual, personalised options, whatever your taste
    Diego Costa: Devil in blue who upsets defences is a reminder of what Liverpool have lost

    Devil in blue Costa is a reminder of what Liverpool have lost

    The Reds are desperately missing Luis Suarez, says Ian Herbert
    Ashley Giles: 'I'll watch England – but not as a fan'

    Ashley Giles: 'I'll watch England – but not as a fan'

    Former one-day coach says he will ‘observe’ their World Cup games – but ‘won’t be jumping up and down’
    Greece elections: In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza

    Greece elections

    In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza, says Patrick Cockburn
    Holocaust Memorial Day: Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears

    Holocaust Memorial Day

    Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears over Europe
    Fortitude and the Arctic attraction: Our fascination with the last great wilderness

    Magnetic north

    The Arctic has always exerted a pull, from Greek myth to new thriller Fortitude. Gerard Gilbert considers what's behind our fascination with the last great wilderness