Sister My Sister: Dramatization of the Real Story Inspiring Genet’s Play, The Maids

A dramatization of the real story upon which The Maids, Jean Genet’s famous play is based, Sister My Sister is a small-scale film with some powerful moments.

The film’s claustrophobic ambience, overt lesbian overtones and formal artistic sensibility might restrict the appeal of this intense chamber piece to the arthouse and festival circuits.

Set in 1932, in a French provincial town, the drama concerns Madame Danzard (Julie Walters), a strict, authoritarian mother who domineers her clumsy daughter Isabelle (Sophie Thursfield) to the point of emotional suffocation. As her major concerns are immaculate appearance, respectability and order, she’s also extremely harsh with her two maids, Christine (Joely Richardson) and her younger sister Lea (Jodhi May).

During the first hour, there’s hardly any communication between the upstairs and downstairs in the rigidly stratified household. Through cross-cutting, the narrative draws parallels between the two sets of relationships, both based on unequal power and unhealthy emotional dependency. The tensions between the four women gradually reach breaking point and in the horrific climax, an act of shocking violence erupts.

The insecure Christine resents the fact that sister Lea is their mother’s favorite and she still suffers from a bad experience at her convent. In contrast, Lea is the more sensitive and forgiving one. The sisters’ isolation from the outside world and their humiliation make them too reliant on each other and soon an explicitly sexual dimension is added to their already charged emotional encounters.

While the core situation is clearly established by writer Kesselman, her undernourished script doesn’t offer much in the way of narrative surprises or in-depth characterizations. Kesselman’s skeleton of a script lacks the specifics of a good dramatic construction; for long stretches, there’s no dialogue and the interaction is carried out by exchanges of looks.

The chief problems may be pic’s excessive running time and deliberate pacing. Attempting to overcome underdeveloped screenplay and lack of drama, director Meckler focuses on the behavior of her four talented actresses. However, the use of flashbacks, which don’t add much to the proceedings, slow tempo, and detached staging all indicate that ideally this should have been a one-hour play.

Julie Walters, usually a reliable pro, gives a one-note performance, though it’s not her fault as her role is too narrowly conceived. As the sisters, Richardson and May fare better, displaying a greater range of emotions and giving some sharp shadings to their lean dialogue.

Proficient production values, particularly Rowe’s crisp lensing and Amies’ impressive production design, show allert intelligence behind the camera.