Friday, 24 June 2011

Whistle Down the Wind (1961)

Mary Hayley Bell, wife of actor John Mills, used their three children, Hayley, Juliet and Jonathan as the inspiration for the main characters in her 1957 novella Whistle Down the Wind. It was probably inevitable that the film version directed by Bryan Forbes in 1961 would star Hayley Mills: not only was she at that point the most popular child star in the world, but the film's producer Richard Attenborough was also a good friend of the family. In it she gives perhaps her subtlest and most naturalistic performance, although Alan Barnes, playing her brother Charles, steals every scene he's in.
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Originally set in Sussex, the story was relocated to North Lancashire after Attenborough asked writers Willis Hall and Keith Waterhouse, in their words, to 'northernise' it. This helps to make the simple and delicate story more plausible by grounding it in a more harshly realistic setting. But the more overtly Christian parallels, such as the playground denial of Christ and the stranger standing in the shape of the cross while being searched, are less well integrated.
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Forbes, making his directorial debut, deftly handles both the adult and child performers, with Bernard Lee giving an understated and nuanced portrayal of the gruff but loving father. Filming mostly on location, with some interior scenes shot at Pinewood, Forbes contrasts location shots of the children dwarfed in the vast countryside with scenes filmed in the cramped studio barn. This is particularly effective in the film's climactic dialogue scene between Kathy and the stranger. The alternating shots of Hayley Mills and Alan Bates - she outside the barn and he inside, with only a small high window to communicate through - help make the sense of disappointment and vanquished innocence almost palpable.
A major part of the film's charm lies in the score composed by Malcolm Arnold, which features a jaunty arrangement of the traditional carol 'We Three Kings' which he humorously links to the three children. For the original soundtrack recording, the memorable theme tune was actually whistled by Richard Attenborough. Having already inspired a music video in the 1980s, in 1998 the novel and the film were turned into a West End musical by Andrew Lloyd Webber.


Published by


Volume 28,No.332,September 1961,pages 126-7


Kathy Bostock, her younger sister Nan and brother Charles, their ages ranging from about fourteen to six respectively, live on a lonely Lancashire farm. Their father is a busy widower; his sister Dorothy, who runs the household, is a cross-patch. Deprived of unstinting affection, the children live a private life of their own; they rescue three kittens from drowning and a Salvation Army girl tells Charles that Jesus will look after his kitten if only Charles believes in Him. They hide the kittens in a barn and during the night Kathy returns to see if they are safe. Entering, she stumbles upon an injured man. Taking his startled cry of "Jesus Christ" as proof of the stranger's identity, she quickly recruits Nan and Charles to share her belief. The bearded man is in fact a murderer, hunted by the local police; and while he is glad to have the children's help with food and drink (bread and a bottle of Bostock's wine), he is perplexed when one of them gives him the Bible and calls it "his book". Soon the secret leaks out to all the neighbouring children and the barn is besieged by little Magi. Charles gives the man his kitten to look after, but it dies and Charles's faith is badly shaken. Finally, during Charles's birthday party, Nan unwittingly betrays the man's presence to Aunt Dorothy and the game is up. He surrenders to the police and is seen by Kathy being frisked in a crucified posture against the skyline. "He'll come again", Kathy assures a child who has arrived too late to see "Jesus".

There are two themes here. One, an embarrassingly explicit allegory of Christ's betrayal, comes straight from Mary Hayley Bell's novel. The other is the film's own illustration of a childhood world, secret and fantastic and sufficiently sturdy to withstand the intrusion of a good deal of pretentious symbolism (the identification of the village children with the disciples; the three betrayals with their echo of the apostle Peter). Fortunately, these complications emerge quite late in the film; while the first hurdle, Kathy's belief that the fugitive is Jesus Christ, appears logical enough in context, the way being neatly prepared by a series of credibly related incidents clear of all possible whimsy and offence. In addition there is some tough, laconic dialogue by Keith Waterhouse and Willis Hall; the adults come in for an invigorating dose of castigation, notably the pretty Sunday school teacher without a clue how to communicate her opinion on the eventuality of a Second Coming, and the smug vicar obsessed with the theft of lead from his church roof; above all, most of the scenes shared by the three children are observed with insight and vivid humour.

Though Bernard Lee and Elsie Wagstaffe are excellent as the father and the aunt, the best moments are provided by Alan Barnes as the six-year-old with a bleak, firm line in scepticism; and by Diane Holgate as his snootily unshakable sister. Hayley Mills, caught half-way between the child's faith and the adult's disillusion, fails, through no fault of her own, to bridge the gap. The split is in the script, and she conceals the tedium which must have accompanied the brilliant coaching of the younger children with a potent, concentrated professionalism. Arthur Ibbetson's photography endows the hedges, ditches, ponds and muggy weather of the moorland locations with a beauty all their own. Bryan Forbes, directing for the first time, reveals a painstaking, often incisive talent for behaviour rather than a marked personal style. But he knows the texture of North Country life, and only becomes paralysed into inaction or overstatement where the exigencies of the scriptural parallels put too great a strain on his and his audience's belief.

The Monthly Film Bulletin was published by the British Film Institute between 1934 and 1991. Initially aimed at distributors and exhibitors as well as filmgoers, it carried reviews and details of all UK film releases. In 1991, the Bulletin was absorbed by Sight and Sound magazine.

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