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

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