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'The Nun's Story' (1959)

 Sometimes you discover a real gem of a movie through nothing other than channel surfing and that was the case when very recently BBC 2 showed the Audrey Hepburn film ‘The Nun Story’ directed by veteran director Fred Zimmerman (‘High Noon’, ‘From Here to Eternity’ & ‘The Day of the Jackal’).

The back story to the film is almost as interesting as the movie itself but more of that later. ‘The Nun’s Story’ is set in 1920’s Belgium where young Gaby Van Der Mal (Audrey Hepburn) decides to join a convent of nursing Sisters in order that she can help people in what was then the Belgian Congo. Gaby joins and becomes ‘Sister Luke’ after taking her vows in what is a very tough Christian order – if for example she remembers or brings to mind her previous life including her family or friends, then she has to write that ‘error’ down. The Sisters are expected to forget their previous existence and relationships and be bonded to God alone.

Gabby although committed to be a good Sister and Christian, really struggles with the strict demands made of her, which crystallise when she goes to the Congo and works with surgeon Dr Fortunati (Peter Finch) who challenges whether, how great a nurse and person that she is, if she is cut out to be a nun. Gaby starts to doubt the strictness of the regime she is forced to adhere to. Working too hard she contracts a form of TB and is nursed to wellness again by Fortunati, before being recalled to the Belgian convent with World War II approaching.

Gaby is heartbroken by this but accepts a new role as nursing Sister for those injured during the occupation. She then finds out that the Nazis killed her father (who was also a surgeon) and that she cannot forgive the Germans for what they did to him, to her or to her country, especially as the nuns are told to do nothing to alarm the Nazi occupying forces. In the end she has to decide between what her heart tells her is the only right thing to do and what God may demand of her.

A two and a half hour film about nuns may not be high on your list of must see movies but ‘The Nun’s Story’ really captured me. As the innocent but spirited (and spiritual) Gaby, Audrey Hepburn puts in an outstanding performance and remember this was before she went to make ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s’ & ‘My Fair Lady’ and she was nominated for an Oscar, won the BAFTA award for Best Actress, and was the biggest box office hit of the year behind ‘Ben Hur’.

You feel that Hepburn is less acting in this role but simply ‘being’ and you can understand that when you appreciate that she knew the dilemma that Gaby faced because she herself had to undergo the Nazi occupation, this time of Holland when she lived there as a young girl. Hepburn had to decide which way she faced in that conflict despite being only 10 at the time. She decided to help the Dutch resistance after her uncle was executed by them.

It’s also important to say that ‘The Nun’s Story’ is a true life story. It is based on the book by Kathryn Hulme who worked with Marie Louise Habets who like Gaby went into a convent, worked in the Congo and was forced to decide where her conscience and loyalties lay. Habets, after her own father’s execution, felt she could not honour her central vow of forgiveness to her Sisterhood, left her convent to help offer aid to British forces during the Battle of the Bulge, before later treating Belgians in the concentration camps and refugees later on. She and Kathryn Hulme became great friends and moved to America and beyond together to help look after native Indians and Hawaiians.

There is a great coda to this story in that later on when Audrey Hepburn got seriously injured whilst making ‘The Unforgiven’ (there’s a very apt title!) it was Marie Louise Habets who came to treat and care for her -what a gal!

Tags: WWII, The Nun's Story, Fred Zimmerman, Audrey Hepburn, Belgium, Nazi, Peter Finch, Kathryn Hulme, Marie Louise Habets, Zoe Fairbairns