Friday, 27 March 2009

The Nanny

1965
Dir. Seth Holt

Returning home from spending two years in a juvenile psychiatric hospital after the suspicious death of his younger sister, Joey (William Dix) finds it difficult settling into his family home again. His insensitive and neglectful father Bill is still as distant and nearly always absent from the house; his mother Virginia still as fragile and in the depths of depression as she was when he left; and his loyal and somewhat overbearing Nanny (Bette Davis) still as domineering and quietly sinister. Joey was blamed for his sister’s death and his precocious behaviour makes it hard for his parents to accept him back again and does nothing to alleviate his parents’ suspicions of his suspected derangement. Insistent that he can look after himself, he goes out of his way to ensure his contact with his Nanny is minimal. He refuses to take the room she has prepared for him or eat any of the food she has cooked. He alleges that she was responsible for the death of his sister and is now determined to kill him too.

The Nanny is one of Hammer’s most subtle and mature chillers, perhaps owing more to the likes of Val Lewton than their usual gothic outpourings. At times the psychological intrigue and ambiguity give way to more melodramatic moments, but it is never anything less than compelling. The lack of violence and gore is refreshing and Holt’s restrained direction is as effective and deft as Davis’ performance as the titular Nanny. The crisp black and white photography lends the film an air of sombre menace.

It is clear from the outset the unyielding hold Nanny wields over the family. We learn that she was Virginia’s Nanny too and is still depended on by the troubled mother who has taken to washing down her denial with gin in order to cope with her grief and loss. Wendy Craig’s performance as the pathetic Virginia is a touching one. She seems to have reverted back to a childlike creature in the wake of her daughter’s death and relies on the Nanny more than ever. At one stage, in a hushfully unsettling scene we see Nanny spoon feed her and brush her hair. After a suspicious bout of food poisoning, for which Joey receives blame, the broken woman is taken to hospital, leaving her son in the care of the Nanny, whose quiet power echoes through the house.



Careful not to present us with a clear cut story of tormented and disturbed child vs. unhinged and dangerous Nanny, writer Jimmy Sangster paints full and dark blooded characters. When we first encounter Joey he is playing a cruel and twisted prank on one of his nurses. He displays contempt and suspicion of middle-aged women, particularly his Nanny. We are often left wondering whether he is simply an insufferable brat or really just a damaged and paranoid little boy trying to recover from the premature death of his sister which he blames Nanny for. He ensures his aversion towards his Nanny is unflinchingly clear.

Similarly the character of the Nanny is as ambiguously drawn. Several harrowing flashbacks fill in the blanks and offer us the opportunity to peer further into Nanny and Joey’s murky pasts. We learn that Davis’ character felt she had no alternative but to enter a life of servitude for the Fane family due to the dire poverty of her own background and social status. We learn too that she has a daughter of her own who has died because of a botched abortion in a seedy backstreet hovel. Mother and daughter had a bitter relationship and never reconciled their differences. It is an affecting and uncomfortable scene highlighting the choices people are forced to make because of pride. It also poses serious questions about the class divide in Britain and how people from poorer economic backgrounds had fewer options in life.

As well as the domineering and insidious side of Nanny, we also see her in quieter moments too, for example the shot of her in her small room, quietly rocking in her chair, seemingly reflecting on melancholy secrets we can never be privy to. Whilst appearing perfectly innocent, scenes such as this also carry a weighty air of the sinister too, further adding to the already heady dubiousness.



A particularly chilling moment occurs when Virginia’s sister Penny comes to stay and finds Nanny standing outside Joey’s room clutching a pillow… Penny’s weak heart means she can’t deal with stress or shock and when she suspects that Nanny might be a murderess the consequences are dire. Standing formidably over the dying woman who is begging for her medicine, Nanny adopts the pose of an impatient adult dealing with a stroppy child and doesn’t bat an eyelid when Penny slips into death’s dark embrace.

The majority of the story takes places within the confines of the family home, a lush apartment in the city. Events become stiflingly claustrophobic and the few instances we are permitted to go outside offer no respite. Tension snakes around the ambiguity of the characters and the gradual realisation through revelatory flashbacks paints a quietly haunting and shattering portrait of cruel circumstances and unavoidable heartbreak. While Nanny wasn’t exactly the cause of Susy’s death, she wasn’t entirely guiltless and her guilt has effectively hollowed her out. She stood by and let Joey take the blame, hence her eagerness to welcome him home and fuss over him.
The flashbacks depicting her bathing the dead child are completely distressing.



Prior to this role, Davis had starred in two Gothic chillers: Whatever Happened to Baby Jane (1962) and Hush… Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964). Her performance in The Nanny is often overlooked in favour of these more elaborate Grand Guignol pantomimes. Davis ensures that we sympathise with the seemingly downtrodden yet dexterous Nanny. The ambiguity that surrounds her character is palpable. The first glimpse we get of her is as she purposefully makes her way home from an errand: she passes through a park smiling at children playing and feeding pigeons. Surely she’s just a sweet old lady? Surely?

A chilling portrait of loss, obsession and paranoia that is cut through with a dark wit and undeniably dark poignance.

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