I’ve read none of the 60+ books published by Rumer Godden (1907-1998), though I remember that my mother owned one of her novels (A Breath of Air). Before the word was coined, I saw her as a purveyor of chick lit, albeit chick lit that drew some major film directors—Jean Renoir to The River, Michael Powell to “Black Narcissus,” both of which concern young Englishwomen in the India in which Godden grew up. Although I admired the color photography of both of those movies, I found the stories overly hysterical. Along with the screen adaptations of The Battle of Villa Fiorita and The Greengage Summer (released here as “Loss of Innocence”) that I have not seen, they are “chick flicks.”
Godden’s name was not what drew me to watch “In This House of Brede.” Rather, it was the 1975 BBC movie’s star, the estimable Diana Rigg, who has had far too few good big-screen roles. It was Rigg who piqued my interest. (I was a devoted fan of the original “Avengers” as an adolescent; I was also a big fan of the movie “Becket” in those days, and remembered Pamela Brown from it.)
Mrs. Peel would seem an unlikely nun (as do Ingrid Bergman, Audrey Hepburn, Rosalind Russell, Jane Fonda, Anne Bancroft, Melina Mercouri, Glenda Jackson, Gladys Cooper, and others who have triumphed playing roles as nuns). In “In This House of Brede” she seeks the veil after a successful career in business. Like Audrey Hepburn in “The Nun’s Story,” she is a lot smarter than those around her in the convent and extirpating her pride and self-confidence and the awe some of her intellectual inferiors feel for her (and the backlash of her intellectual inferiors who are her elders in the convent…) are problems for her.
Hepburn played a much younger entrant to an order that sent out medical missionaries to the Belgian Congo. Rigg plays a widow who is fluent in Japanese in a Benedictine order in England that receives postulants from Japan (some years after she has become Dame Phillipa (it’s not as if she knew that her new vocation was going to involve her familiarity with Japanese culture and language). Before becoming Dame Phillipa, an Oxford graduate, she also knew Latin, so that beginning Latin classes are more than easy for her.
The Abbess of Brede who had encouraged her to explore a contemplative religious vocation dies almost as soon as Phillipa becomes a postulant. The successor, Dame Catherine (Gwen Bradford), is sympathetic to Phillipa’s difficulties and conflict with the self-righteous and resentment-filled Dame Agnes (Pamela Brown), who is the teacher of Latin and later is determined to learn Japanese with no help from Dame Phillipa. (It is very fortunate for Dame Phillipa that Dame Agnes was not elected abbess!)
A cheerful younger postulant from the neighborhood of the convent, Joanna (Judy Bowker), is eager to be Dame Phillipa’s protege. The girl reminds Dame Phillipa of her own child who was killed in an automobile accident and her maternal concern is seen by the petty Dame Agnes as sensuality, and a suspect bond that must be broken.
Dame Phillipa mortifies herself by working in the infirmary (though the convent badly needs her business acumen to sort out its financial affairs, that would build pride and foster even more resentment).
The film is well-acted and the convent (really St. Mary’s Abbey Grammar School in Mill Hill within London) is well-photographed. The stifling of talent for mortifying the self is not a program for which I have sympathy, but if that’s what Dame Phillipa wants, she manages it without destroying anyone else. Patience not being one of my virtues, I was somewhat impatient with Dame Phillipa learning patience which is just as unnatural to her as it is to me.
The music is dated and sometimes overly intrusive. The liturgy and details of convent routines have been lauded by those with personal familiarity with them. But if it weren’t for Dianna Rigg being the central focus, I probably would not screened the DVD or finished it if I came upon it.
“In This House of Brede” was directed by George Schaeffer, a frequent “Hallmark Hall of Fame” director and lensed by Chris Challis (The Tales of Hoffman, Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines, The Deep).
“In This House of Brede” is not as good as “The Nun’s Story” and is definitely no where nearly as funny as “Nasty Habits” but I found it considerably more plausible than “Black Narcissus” (if less colorful than the studio Himalayas in that (movie also based on a Rumer Godde novel) or the Africanlocations in “The Nun’s Story”) .
“The nun,” (2013), based on Diderot’s 1760 “La religeuse,” “a film by Guilllaume Nicou,” is in color and has full-frontal nudity of hits vocationless, involuntary nun, played by Pauline Etienne who is tortured by one mother superior (Louise Bougon) and then coddled by a lesbian one played by Isabelle Huppert, who fails to seduce her (even after getting into the young nun’s bed). The movie adds a happy ending (escape from the convent) and a more spirited Suzane. Yves Cape provided beautiful cinematography, but the direction was very slack.
©2018, Stephen O. Murray