The Killing Of Sister George Review
The Killing of Sister George is supposed to be a serious drama about a lesbian relationship in crisis. Actually, it's a rip-roaring black comedy which bears more than a slight resemblance to Robert Aldrich's Whatever Happened To Baby Jane, and is pitched at the same level of emotional hysteria. Subtle it isn't, but it is hugely entertaining with a great central performance.
The film attracted a good deal of controversy upon release due to its then rather daring portrayal of lesbianism as, gasp, an acceptable way of life. It has to be seen in this context because it now looks very dated in the way it tries to shock us - domination, transvestitism and nipple-kissing are presented in the set-piece shocker mode of a murder in a slasher flick - and in its attempt to establish lesbianism as an acceptable subject it mostly manages to sensationalise it. But the intentions are mostly honourable even if the results are not and most of the same flaws were present in the original play by Frank Marcus. It's basically a piece from the same genre as the contemporary gay soul-searchers like Boys In The Band, well meaning but inadvertantly ridiculous.
Beryl Reid, in a superb performance, plays June Buckridge, an actress who has been employed as the platitude-spouting Sister George, village nurse in a long-running soap opera. One day, out of the blue, she begins to suspect that her character is to be dropped thus, inevitably, ending her career. To make matters worse, her home life is not going well, since her lesbian relationship with the overgrown little girl Childie (York) is on the verge of collapse. Then, at the least auspicious moment, the executive producer of the soap, Mrs Croft (Browne) comes calling with bad news for June and a voracious desire for Childie.
Much of this is rather silly melodrama, but Beryl Reid's inspired performance lifts it above that level. She makes June a credible figure; outspoken and cynical on the surface, but scared and tired inside, terrified that her life will fall apart when she loses the security of her regular job and all too aware of her fading powers of attraction. She dominates every scene she appears in, which is fortunate considering the rest of the performances. They're not exactly bad - indeed, Susannah York is pretty good - but they're hopelessly stereotyped. Childie is the cliched child woman - dig that collection of dolls and the baby-doll nightie - and as for Mrs Croft, well words almost fail. Coral Browne was a good actress in the right part, but she chews the scenery with such alacrity here that you fear the set might collapse. The moment she appears, you spot the curled-lip and venomous leer and wonder whether the panto season might have come early - you couldn't find a better approximation of King Rat if you tried. However, in a smaller role, Ronald Fraser has the competent mediocrity of the soap regular off to a tee and the excellent Hugh Paddick - Julian as he is better known to older readers - has some nice moments as the frustrated director.
There are two major problems with the film. Firstly, despite being slightly opened-out, it does feel rather stage bound since most scenes involved two or three characters shouting at each other in a small space. This doesn't have to be the inevitable result of fidelity to a stage original; look at Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf and Glengarry Glen Ross for proof of this. The fact that all the characters are cliches doesn't help of course. Secondly, the action begins at a pitch of hysteria and doesn't relax until the end credits. While this is entertaining (and ensures that the pace doesn't flag) it's also a little bit exhausting. Robert Aldrich was never what you might describe as a subtle director, although his later films are a lot more complex than they first appear - especially Ulazana's Raid. Here, however, he offers us a gothic black comedy dressed up as serious drama - don't be fooled by the controversial taboo-busting reputation, it could be called "Whatever Happened to Sister George ?".
To be fair, Aldrich isn't subtle but he is energetic, and he never made a boring film. Even something as basely cynical as The Choirboys has enough rowdy humour to be worth watching. Here, he serves the material well enough, although Joseph Biroc's photography is pretty ugly and the music score is hilariously melodramatic. Lukas Heller's script is as sensitive as you might expect from a man who had just co-written The Dirty Dozen. But as a guiltily enjoyable bit of bad taste, it's well worth seeing and the sheer power of Beryl Reid's performance raises it above the level of competency. She is simply unforgettable and even manages to pull off the virtually impossible final scene that has eluded several much more respected actresses.
This is one of the first R2 releases from Pearson TV, along with two other Aldrich films - Too Late The Hero and The Grissom Gang - and a little known Michael Caine historical drama, The Last Valley. It's not exactly bad, but it's not all that good either.
The picture is letterboxed 1.85:1, with no anamorphic enhancement. On the box it is announced as "Digitally re-mastered", but you wouldn't really know it. The image looks very dated and flat throughout. Now, this is a problem partly with the photography of the film, which was not all that good in the first place. But the pinkish tint to the image is distracting, and the darker scenes are artifact riddled. There is some grain throughout. The brighter exterior scenes are fine, but there aren't many of them in the film. Colours are muted and unnatural. It's not the worst picture I've seen, but nor is it much of an improvement on VHS quality.
The soundtrack is the original mono. Actually quite acceptable, with clear dialogue. The music score is obtrusive, but that isn't the fault of the disc.
There are some text extras; quite interesting production notes, obviously taken from the 1968 press releases, and brief biographies of the leading players and the director. The menu has a compilation of scenes from the film backed by the theme music. There are 14 chapter stops, with titles that give away the end of the film - not that it's exactly unpredictable.
The Killing of Sister George isn't a particularly great film, nor is it representative of its director's very best work. But it is constantly entertaining and engrossing and, by the end, rather moving despite its flaws. The DVD is below average, but considering the price - you can get it for ten pounds online - it's not bad value and certainly no worse than some recent releases from major distributors.