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When the Walls Can Talk: Forbes’ Forgotten “The Whisperers” Finds New Breath | Blu-ray Review

British director Bryan Forbes is perhaps best remembered for his iconic American horror film The Stepford Wives, which became a genre classic and entered the cultural lexicon as a troubling metaphor for insidious patriarchy (Jordan Peele retrofitted the Forbes film, based on the Ira Levin novel, for his 2017 hit Get Out). But Forbes (who also appeared in many films, including the 1961 classic The Guns of Navarone) has an extensive underrated filmography, including a variety of haunting genre pieces (Séance on a Wet Afternoon, 1964), curious dramas (The L-Shaped Room, 1962) and high-end literary adaptations (King Rat, 1965) worthy of wider renown. One of his most underrated is 1967’s The Whisperers, for which star Dame Edith Evans received an Oscar nomination (her third and final such distinction), a Golden Globe and Best Actress at the Berlin International Film Festival. A bleak examination of class and ageism which sails into genre territory, this adaptation of the 1961 novel by Robert Nicolson plays like Ken Loach dabbling in film noir.

Mrs. Margaret Ross (Dame Edith Evans) appears to be living within an increasingly dark delusion. Abandoned by her husband (Eric Portman) decades prior, she is dependent on meager allotments from National Assistance for sustenance. Believing there are voices outside her apartment and walls attempting to get inside, she’s ignored by the police. Her son (Ronald Fraser) appears out of the blue, and unbeknownst to Margaret, deposits a package in her spare bedroom. Shortly after, her son is arrested for robbery and she discovers a bundle of cash in the room but believes it to be a windfall she’s received from an inheritance. Gleeful of her newfound economic liberty, she makes the mistake of flaunting her money to the wrong woman, who leads Margaret to her home, gets her drunk while the family robs the old woman and throws her in a ditch near her home. Hospitalized and suffering from pneumonia, her husband is tracked down and he arrives to bring her back home. But he doesn’t stay for long.

As the proud and lonely Margaret Ross, Evans is uncannily authentic as an elderly woman who’s been forgotten, demeaned and dismissed by society and her family. A vestige of a withering generation swallowed by the impoverishment of their once privileged class, Forbes opens in what feels like Charlotte Perkins Gilman territory as a character study of a woman caving in on herself in a cramped apartment. Of course, at some points, those voices seem to be real, though mostly from the arguing of an upstairs couple, one half of which is played by Forbes’ wife and frequent collaborator Nanette Newman (her relationship with a black man signifies the changing social codes and class cues, as further evidenced by Evans’ assumption the man is ‘keeping’ the woman against her will).

Rather than use genre as an escapist reverie, however, Ross’ full circle moment, which includes her estranged husband, hunted down by social workers before he abandons her once more after squandering all the money her son had stolen, solidifies her trenchant vulnerability as she fades back into the woodwork, where the voices return but do not respond to her vague inquiries of them.

Film Rating: ★★★½/☆☆☆☆☆
Disc Rating: ★★★/☆☆☆☆☆

Los Angeles based Nicholas Bell is's Chief Film Critic and covers film festivals such as Sundance, Berlin, Cannes and TIFF. He is part of the critic groups on Rotten Tomatoes, The Los Angeles Film Critics Association (LAFCA), the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and GALECA. His top 3 for 2021: France (Bruno Dumont), Passing (Rebecca Hall) and Nightmare Alley (Guillermo Del Toro). He was a jury member at the 2019 Cleveland International Film Festival.

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