FASHIONABLE PORTRAYALS OF CHARACTERS IN NEW YORK, PARIS AND ROME have become definitive of Audrey Hepburn, the sprite-like style icon in Givenchy. But it was her role as Sister Luke in The Nun's Story that film critic Henry Hart was determined "will forever silence those who have thought of her less an actress than a symbol of the sophisticated child/woman" she continues to be regarded as.
No funny face. No little black dress. In The Nun's Story, Hepburn relies on neither elfin frame nor iconic pixie cuts to sustain a 149-minute presentation of life as a nursing sister in 1920s Belgium. Based on a book by Kathryn Hulme, which was based on the life of Marie Louise Habets, the film follows the experiences of Sister Luke as she struggles with the obedience and humility stipulated by her vows. A brilliant nurse exceeding her peers, she grapples particularly with pride and self-will, confessing that "When I succeed in obeying the rule, I fail at the same time by having pride in obeying."
Challenges and disappointments plague Sister Luke's experience, including an instance of being ordered to fail her medical exams to prove humility. She was also to maintain neutrality during the war. After years of inner struggle, Sister Luke realizes she is unable to attain the obedient perfection of monastic life, eventually deciding to leave it altogether. Music was a point of discussion for the scene of her departure; after all, what tone is appropriate for a nun walking away from her vows? Of the film's writing, Dominican advisers were said to have reviewed the script thoroughly, debating between such phrasings as "against nature" and "above nature." The Nun's Story nonetheless depicts the dictates of religious life to be both.
Hepburn received an Academy Award nomination for the role, as did the film in seven other categories. Although it failed to win in any, it is considered the most financially successful of Hepburn's films, not to mention her favorite. Today being the actress' birthday, it's perhaps not a bad time to spotlight the character often eclipsed by Holly Golightly, Sabrina Fairchild and other far more popular nun movies that involve a lot of singing.
Long before Maria von Trapp left the abbey, Sister Luke had already been there, done that.
The Nun's Story, 1959. Directed by Fred Zinnemann.