Dir/scr: Jan Dunn, UK. 2009. 105 mins
The intense emotional demands of a life devoted to Christ have inspired a fine tradition of compelling human dramas stretching from The Nun’s Story to Agnes Of God. Unfortunately, The Calling is not a distinguished addition to this particular niche genre.
An unconvincing misfire of awkward jocularity and incontinent melodrama, it squanders the talents of a fine array of veteran British actresses including Brenda Blethyn, Susannah York, Amanda Donohoe and Rita Tushingham. Theatrically, it would seem not to have a prayer although the quality of the cast might give it a slight chance in ancillary markets.
“The real miracle worker is Brenda Blethyn who plays Sister Ignatius with a repertoire of pursued lips and benign smiles that create the impression of a warm, spirited individual”
Writer/director Jan Dunn has won credibility and some critical support for resourceful, low-budget British dramas Gyppo (2005) and Ruby Blue (2007). But she comes badly unstuck with The Calling, unable to find a consistent tone or focus for the story and indulging in an underlying levity that almost defies the viewer to take any of it seriously.
Matters are not helped by the Janette Mason’s jaunty musical score, intermittent direct-to-camera narration and a sprawling scenario which shoehorns in a succession of soap-opera style incidents including two suicides, a pregnancy and a terminally ill mother. Key moments have a flippancy that deprives the film of any emotional heft. The overall effect is like the pilot episode of a television series determined to cover all bases.
Emily Beacham stars as Joanna, a young woman increasingly convinced that she has a calling and drawn to a small community of nuns at St Bertha’s Priory. Her family and close friends are strongly opposed to her decision to become a nun but she finds a sympathetic supporter in progressive Sister Ignatius (Brenda Blethyn). Accepted as a postulant, her presence at the priory is deeply troubling to a group of vindictive, unwelcoming nuns with dark secrets and guilty pasts.
The characters in The Calling are drawn with little subtlety; the sisters seem to have been given a single characteristic each like the seven dwarfs, so we have the stroppy one (Pauline McGlynn), the slutty one (Susannah Harker), the drunken one (Rita Tushingham), not to mention a Prioress (Susannah York) on the edge of senility. Joanna’s best friend is also drawn with broad brushstrokes, turning up to a retreat swigging a bottle of red wine, puffing on a cigarette and inappropriately dressed
Motivations and performances are wildly inconsistent throughout, with guilty parties including a game Rita Tushingham overdoing the impish exuberance and Justin Salinger overplaying the prissy self-righteousness of the censorious Father Kieran.
Susannah York does manage to convey a little of the pathos in the sinister Prioress, suggesting a more interesting life than the one we see on screen. The real miracle worker is Brenda Blethyn who plays Sister Ignatius with a repertoire of pursued lips and benign smiles that create the impression of a warm, spirited individual. She gives the film a touch of class that the material really doesn’t deserve.
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Ole Bratt Birkeland