Wednesday, November 29, 2017

In This House of Brede ( 1975 )

"There is only one special friend here in this house for any of us. 'Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, with all thy soul, and with all thy mind'. This is the first and greatest commandment."

In 1975, Diana Rigg starred in the two-hour GE Theater production In This House of Brede as widow Philippa, a successful middle-aged London businesswoman who leaves "the world" to enter Brede Abbey, a Benedictine monastery, as a cloistered nun. 

This CBS television movie was loosely based on author Rumer Godden's engrossing masterpiece of the same name which was published in 1969. Both the novel and the film span a ten-year period and focus on Philippa's growth from a cold bitter woman to a compassionate and loving nun. 

When we first meet Philippa she is stern-faced, independent, and not particularly likable. She comes to Brede for the wrong reasons. She comes seeking a refuge from her past, "a place where God would be all and there would be no need of ever saying 'I love you' to another human being again". And then Joanna arrives. This sweet young novice makes Philippa realize just how deeply she longs for the love of the daughter that was taken from her years before. 

Philippa thought she could leave the memory of her daughter's death behind her but Sister Joanna's presence serves as a living symbol of the event. At first, she despises the girl for that reason but as her hatred transforms into love she comes to see Joanna as a gift from God ( the Biblical meaning of the name Joanna )....until Sister Agnes informs the abbess of their affection for each other. Special friendships within the community were frowned upon by the order. Philippa then realizes she must break away from Joanna. 

"It is such a bother loving people.....one always suffers in the end" 
In Godden's novel, Philippa was just one part of a rich complex tapestry that centered around the true heart of the novel - Brede itself. It is a beautiful novel that contains stories within stories, all of which unfold randomly, slowly revealing personalities and messages of wisdom. 

An accurate transcription to film of such a narrative would have resulted in an immense production - but it would have made a fabulous mini-series. Instead, to condense the story to its two-hour time frame, screenwriter James Costigan eliminated many of the characters and shifted the focus on Philippa's struggle to overcome her grief; rewriting the story to accommodate this. The resulting script had its good and bad points. While Costigan managed in part to capture the essence of the book, certain scenes were overly sentimental and the behavior of some of the nuns seemed improbable. 

In the novel, one of the more prominent characters was Sister Cecily, an angelically beautiful postulant that quickly becomes a favorite with Abbess Catherine and Dame Maura, the precentrix. Costigan eliminated the character of Dame Maura and cleverly transformed the bond she shares with Sister Cecily into a mother-daughter relationship between Dame Philippa and Sister Cecily, whom he renamed Joanna....which so happens to have been the name of Philippa's deceased daughter. As New York Times critic John J. O'Connor described this reworking, "It's a trifle too pat, considerably more calculating and less interesting. That much understood, In this House of Brede still emerges as inspired television." 
Indeed, it is an excellent production, and it is one of those rare films that saves its best moments for the final quarter. Cinematographer Christopher Challis ( Chitty Chitty Bang Bang ) beautifully photographed it, and the cast and crew traveled to the small village of Millstreet in County Cork, Ireland to film scenes amidst the authentic background of Drishane Convent, an impressive structure that serves a majestic purpose. This building becomes as much a part of the film as any of the characters. 

Dame Diana Rigg, who, for her part, was nominated for an Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actress ( Juliet Mills won for QB VII that year ), enacted the spiritual growth of Dame Philippa with great conviction. 
In This House of Brede also benefited from top-notch performances from Judi Bowkers as Sister Joanna, Denis Quilley as Philippa's former lover Sir Richard, and Nicholas Clay. Gwen Watford ( Cleopatra, Taste the Blood of Dracula ) perfectly captured the strong yet gentle and understanding nature of Abbess Catherine, while veteran English actress Pamela Brown ( I Know Where I'm Going, Lust for Life ) was an ideal Dame Agnes, intelligent but with a dangerously suspicious mind. 

"Whenever things seem too much for you, go down to the bottom of the garden and turn, and look back up here at Brede riding against the sky like a great proud ship. And think of all of us within - your sisters. Think of those who were here a hundred years ago and those who will be here a hundred years from now: this long unbroken line of care and companionship."
Click here to view In This House of Brede on Youtube. 

3 comments:

  1. I have a vague recollection of this film's first airing, but nothing beyond that. I am intrigued by the people involved and enjoyed reading your insights on the differences, and difficulties of transferring such an emotionally rich novel to the time pressures of television. Diana Rigg is certainly a fascinating actress and star.

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    1. The film was touted as being one of the best television movies of the year, so I'm not surprised if you remember its original airing, CW. Rumer Godden wrote such rich stories and, as you know, many of them were adapted into films....but she usually had a hand in writing the scripts for them so they stayed true to her style, so this was different not seeing her name on the credits.

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  2. I remember liking this film very much and not just because I was (and am) a Diana Rigg fan. I agree that a miniseries would have been better. Rumer Godden weaves a lot of complex themes into her works. I see that BREDE is on YouTube, so a second viewing is in my near-future. I am looking forward to comparing it to Godden's BLACK NARCISSUS, which has evolved into one of my favorite films.

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