Though he is featured prominently in much of the advertising for Our Mother's House, Dirk Bogarde doesn't appear in the film until the half point. Up to then, it is the domain of a remarkable cast of seven children who play siblings coping with the sudden death of their sickly mother. Now this unusual, original film can be enjoyed in a new release from Warner Archive.
There is only a glimpse of the life the children lived alone with their mother offered in the opening scenes. Oldest sister Elsa (Margaret Laclere) returns to the house with groceries, and while there is also a maid, it is clear that she calls the shots where her parent is concerned. She has clearly set up a rhythm as caretaker and capable head of the house.
When the children's mother dies in a quiet gasp of breath, they grieve, but are so accustomed to taking care of the household that they carry on. They fire the housekeeper and claim mama has gone to sea on doctor's orders. They bury her body in the garden, and set up a shrine in the gardening shed where they commune with her spirit, carrying on the religious fanaticism she has instilled in them.
The children keep on for months, undisturbed and even managing to cash their mother's annuity checks. They struggle when the youngest sister Gerty (Phoebe Nicholls) becomes ill, but manage without a doctor. Then young, stuttering Jiminee (Mark Lester, Oliver! (1968)) brings home a school friend who wants to live with them, arousing the suspicion of the school teacher.
They are saved in the nick of time by the arrival of Charlie Hook (Dirk Bogarde), their supposed father. Summoned by older brother Hubert (Louis Sheldon Williams) during Gerty's illness, he appears at first to be their benefactor. He takes them on outings, and plays with them. In one quietly disturbing moment, he seems sexually fascinated by the pre-pubescent Diana (Pamela Franklin, The Innocents (1961)), though he declines to act on his interest. Like in that moment, the fun is overshadowed by a sense of dread, that he is too good to be true.
It turns out that he is. Charlie spends the money left to the children by their mother. He buys a car, throws parties, and brings home woman after woman. When he starts the process of selling the house, the children protest, and the full extent of his ugliness is made clear. It is also obvious that he has underestimated the will of the children to keep what is rightfully theirs.
The most astonishing thing about Our Mother's House is the cast of children. In his review of the film, Roger Ebert compared their sensitive, uncanny work to that of Hayley Mills in Tiger Bay (1959) and the cast of Lord of the Flies (1963). As in those films, director Jack Clayton captures a naturalness in his young performers that seems to be coupled with real craft. There's nothing precocious or forced about them; it's fine ensemble work by any standard, made all the more fascinating because of the age of the actors.
For the first half of the film, the siblings adjust to life on their own, quietly grieving and attending to the important details upon which their survival hinges. Their personalities emerge: the sweet and sensitive Gerty, the well-meaning Jiminee, who often lacks good sense, high-strung Diana and quietly nervous Hubert. They are cared for by Elsa, who has taken on the mother role ever since her own mother became ill.
The kids have their own society, where work, play and spirituality all have their place. It seems they could go on this way until adulthood if they were only left to live as they please. There are moments though, where you are reminded of their youth, and that they need guidance. In punishing Gerty for accepting a motorbike ride from a stranger, the children seem to be enforcing rules and religious beliefs in which they have received instruction, but do not yet fully understand. Clayton subtly pushes forward reminders of their youth, from a shot beneath the kitchen table of their dangling legs, to a close-up on a hand still pudgy with baby fat.
When Charlie shows up, it feels like an intrusion. While he secures the status quo for the immediate future, he upsets the balance the children have so carefully achieved. Though he has an adult understanding of the world, his behavior is more childish than that of his claimed offspring.
It's an unusual story, told with evenhanded melancholy, occasional playfulness and a great deal of tension. At moments, it seems like a horror film, but the young cast always gives the proceedings a feeling of poignancy that overwhelms any genre leanings.
Much as he did for Contempt (1963), Georges Delerue lends the film a bittersweet lushness with his mysteriously beautiful score.
Perhaps this deeply satisfying film will achieve the classic status it deserves now that it is available to a wider audience.
Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing a copy of the film for review. This is a Manufacture on Demand (MOD) DVD. To order, visit The Warner Archive Collection.