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Wednesday, 30 January 2013

Classic Film Review: Sister Kenny (1946)

Sister Kenny is a biopic of the life of Sister Elizabeth Kenny, an Australian bush nurse who discovers an effective treatment for infant paralysis following polio. Sister Kenny (Rosalind Russell) has on her side the pleasant Doctor McDonnell (Alexander Knox) but faces the wrath much of the medical establishment - they don't want to accept her 'dangerous' theories and she spends her entire life trying to fight it. This costs her many things, not least her relationship with Kevin Connors (Dean Jagger).

Of course, this is fictionalised biography and so dramatises certain parts of Kenny's story. However, the bulk of it remains true to the honour of this incredibly persistent woman and it is compelling because of the underlying truth. One aspect that is contentious is the fact that it features no Australian actors but, on balance, it was better to have none that to ruin the film with bad attempts at accents. As it is, the story stands by itself. The backdrop isn't as important as the woman herself.

Rosalind Russell was nominated for an Oscar for this performance (and won a Golden Globe) and there is no doubt she deserved it. She was 29 at the time of filming but progressed through forty years on screen and it wasn't just a question of good lighting, costumes and make-up. She was phenomenal, every movement perfectly suited to both the character and the character's time of life. She became Elizabeth Kenny and that's not always easy, especially when the person you're portraying is still alive. This film succeeds on a dramatic level and perhaps that's the only level that really matters but it's also a sympathetic portrayal. In the end, it doesn't matter if some of it's fiction because it remains true to the woman.

There are a couple of stand-out scenes. When Elizabeth attends her first case and treats the paralysis with hot rags before trying to get the girl's legs moving again the tension in the scene is high. Elizabeth doesn't have the answers, doesn't really know what's going to happen and is fraught with worry whilst trying to keep a lid on it in front of her patients. A wonderful few minutes from Russell. Secondly, the break between Elizabeth and Kevin is subtly acted by Russell and Jagger and doesn't descend into melodrama. Finally, there is the moment when Elizabeth walks into a lecture theatre full of students to confront her biggest antagonist. I won't ruin it but it's really the best scene of the film.

I didn't expect too much from Sister Kenny but I was happily proved wrong. This is an outstanding performance by Rosalind Russell and the sense I get as I'm going along this journey through classic films is that she's going to end up high on my favourite actresses list.

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