This claustrophobic psychological thriller has a pedigree that would promise
more than the movie delivers. A true story about two French sisters who
worked as maids for a tyrannical and rich woman, it apparently was such a
sensation that Jean Genet wrote a play based on the case, which he called,
"The Maids." Along comes Wendy Kesselman who turns it into a play, which
she calls, "My Sister in the House," and now (1994) this screenplay.
Adaptation from a play explains why it's so insular, mostly confined to the
upstairs and downstairs of the house -- one dominated by the forbidding
Madame Danzard (Julie Walters, "Educating Rita" in a bygone age). Obviously
moneyed and insistent on her image and appearance in the world, she casts a
microscopic eye on her domestic help, Christine (Joely Richardson), and
everything she does. As with many a tyrant, her demands are mean spirited
and her sophistication more a pose than inbred.
Her superficiality is evident by the joy she takes in having a servant she
can scold and condescend to, all the while bragging to her dreamy,
inexpressive daughter Isabelle (Sophie thursfield) how little she's paying
for the services rendered. When Christine asks if her sister Lea (Jodhi May,
"Daniel Deronda", 2002 miniseries) can join her as an additional maid in the
household, sharing her room, the stingy Madame D is overjoyed by the prospect
of an even better deal.
But appreciation of the dedicated and discreet work she's getting is not
something she's let on to her help, and her demands escalate in pettiness
while her abuse seems to be coming from a lack of any substance or value in
her own life. The excoriation of her maids seems to be the central issue for
this empty woman.
A moment of joy is experienced by the sisters who are reuniting for the first
time in a while. Under the mutual attack of their employer, they take solace
in each other in their spare, upstairs room. Sisterly love turns to incest
as the Madame's attacks get more and more unjust and, as the stakes for
satisfying the madwoman they work for grow to murderous proportions.
Richardson is stiffly efficient -- the ideal domestic -- until her sexual
preferences bring her passions to a boil and the injustices of her situation
break her reserve. Jodhi May's innocence masking the potential sexpot is
alluring and works for the relationship and the drama. It also arguably
marks her as the talent with the greatest potential hereabouts. Walters is
duly annoying, gleeful enough in her despicable woman to make her destiny
satisfying. Thursfield has little to do except as mom's reactive sounding
board and plays it dutifully.
But it takes an understanding that this is material for the confines of the
stage to understand why it goes no further than it does, either
geographically or imaginatively. The insularity of the setting is
symptomatic of the minds being portrayed and the limitations of director
Nancy Meckler's movie. On screen, it seems to be an effort at psychological
edginess but the potentials of the medium renders it as bland as Isabelle.
[Reviewed on DVD in 2004, which comes with cast bios and a
~~ Jules Brenner