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UK 1994
Directed by
Nancy Meckler
86 minutes
Rated M

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
3.5 stars

Sister My Sister

American-born theatre director Nancy Meckler who has worked extensively in the UK does a fine job of transposing Wendy Kesselman's play to the screen in this her first attempt at film directing (she has only made one other film since, Alive and Kicking, 1996, which I have not seen)

Based on real events that took place in provincial France (Le Mans to be exact )in the early 1930s, Sister My Sister tells the story of Christine and Léa Papin (Joely Richardson and Jodhi May), who worked as maids for an arrogant petit bourgeoise, Madame Danzard (Julie Walters), and her grown daughter, Isabelle (Sophie Thursfield). Mercilessly bullied by their employer the highly-strung maids finally snapped and murdered both women with a degree of savagery that made the case a cause célèbre in its day (it was regarded as a classic instance of folie à deux).. .   

Previously tackled by Jean Genet with his 1947 play 'The Maids', this version concentrates on the emotional vulnerability of the two women which is sketched in with a black and white prologue referring to their fractured childhood and occasional flashbacks to Christine’s upbringing in a convent where she may have been sexually abused.  

With only the four female players (there are a couple of male characters but only their voices are heard) and the action largely confined to the dreary terraced house, Meckler and Kesselman deftly create an atmosphere of psychological disintegration and spiraling dysfunctionality as Madame Danzard grows increasingly abusive, causing the sisters to retreat into themselves and a desperate physical love affair with Christine in particular growing more and more unstable.

Meckler achieves all this with great economy particularly in giving us the back-story of the girls’ unhappy childhood and later in depicting their horrific crime, investing the women's relationship with a sense of poignant tragedy. Sister, My Sister is the story of deformed love growing where there was no love at all.

The performances are tip-top with Julie Walters in an against-type role truly frightening as the shrew who rules her dullard of a daughter and the maids with self-righteous arrogance whilst May and Richardson are both empathetic as the unfortunate sisters.




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