(director/writer: Bryan Forbes; screenwriter: from a novel by Robert Nicolson; cinematographer: Gerry Turpin; editor: Anthony Harvey; music: John Barry; cast: Dame Edith Evans (Mrs. Maggie Ross), Eric Portman (Archie Ross), Nanette Newman (Girl Upstairs), Avis Bunnage (Mrs. Noonan), Gerald Sim (Mr. Conrad), Ronald Fraser (Charlie Ross), Sarah Forbes (Mrs. Ross as a youngster); Runtime: 106; MPAA Rating: NR; producers: Michael S. Laughlin/Ronald Shedlo; United Artists; 1967-UK)

“By the third act, I felt as boxed in as the protagonist.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Bryan Forbes (“The L-Shaped Room”/”The Wrong Box”/”Séance on a Wet Afternoon”) writes and directs this adaptation of Robert Nicolson’s novel. It’s about an impoverished elderly working class woman, Mrs. Maggie Ross (Dame Edith Evans), abandoned by her good-for-nothing son Charlie (Ronald Fraser) and also abandoned by her roving husband Archie (Eric Portman). She lives in a shabby 2-room flat in a rundown neighborhood and is on public assistance. Mrs. Ross hears voices, which is a symptom of her paranoid delusions whereby she believes others are talking about her and plotting against her.

On a typical day Mrs. Ross warms her feet on the heating pipes at the library, sings hymns in the soup kitchen for her meal, and requests a new pair of shoes when she visits the National Assistance Board. At home she sits in her newspaper-cluttered room listening to the whispering voices that she believes comes from the water tap, the pipes, and the walls. These voices are the lonely woman’s only companions. One day her dream of riches comes true when she finds a parcel with 800 pounds her son hid in her spare room after a robbery and a short visit. The confused woman believes that is her inheritance money from her deceased father that is long overdue. When she tells this to her sneaky neighbor (Avis Bunnage), she’s invited into her flat where’s she’s drugged and robbed of some of her new found riches. She’s then dumped in an alley near her home, where she is found suffering from pneumonia. After a visit to the hospital, she’s sent to a psychiatric unit as the authorities mull over what’s best for this mentally unstable woman. The social worker tracks down her Archie, but after they reconcile Archie steals some of the stolen money still left in her place and splits. Alone again, Mrs. Ross enters her flat and asks: “Are you there?”

Though the 78-year-old Dame Edith Evans gives a spirited performance, the film itself was overly schematic in its melodramatics. It mouths the obvious about the old lady’s problems and wants us to believe that she would be happier with her illusions than with society’s attempts to cure them. By tacking on a cops and robbers story and not sticking with the challenging problems the old woman has of trying to remain sane, fight off her loneliness, reunite with her hubby and deal with her poverty, the film loses some of its poignancy and purpose. By the third act, I felt as boxed in as the protagonist.

The Whisperers Poster