Friday, November 4, 2011

Sisterhood in film

By s. Friday, November 4, 2011
"Because she is my sister, and therefore one half of me."
 - The Other Boleyn Girl
Nicole Kidman and Sandra Bullock as Gillian and Sally Owens in "Practical Magic"
One thing I always wanted to have and I never will is a sister. As an only child I always wanted to have that one constant person who shared childhood with me, who is going to be there for me long after our parents are gone, whose kids will call me aunt. So I always appreciated when movies focus on the relationship between sisters - that unique bond they have, not only through blood but also through life, memories and experiences.

One of the most beautiful relationships between sisters is shown in "Practical Magic" - from generations, there were always two Owens girls - one redhead, one brunette. We meet redhead Gillian - the black sheep, brunette Sally and their aunts. Those women are witches, their house is filled with magic, but also with loyalty to their family and the most miraculous form of love - ability to make sacrifices. Ultimately it is the love Sally has for her sister that saves her life and defeats the evil. The distinction between one sister in need of help and the other providing it is also present in "The Village" where strong Ivy helps her careless, constantly lovestruck sister Kitty calm down, when she is crying in hysterics. Ivy just sits next to her, singing to her.

The kind of devotion and will to help out is also portrayed in "Constantine" where Angela (Rachel Weisz) is trying to help her mentally disturbed twin sister Isabel. She is willing to risk everything to help her get out of Hell and reach peace. The film also shows curious bond between twins - they share dreams and have secret language of their own - messages left in air and light. The powerful bond can be seen in "The other Boleyn girl" - Mary Boleyn cares for Anne, no matter how devious and careless her sister acts. At one point of the film Anne steals king's Henry affections from Mary and that leads to the falling out between sisters. But when Anne faces death Mary will come back, to beg the king to spare her life.

In "The Uninvited", the American remake of "Tale of two sisters" the affection between sisters is so strong it leads to the bloodshed. In the finale we find out that Anna, the protagonist lost her sister in a fire she accidentally caused. Throughout the film she was imagining Alex, as if she was still alive, oblivious to what happened. Anna killed her father's new girlfriend because her mind blocked out the memory and made her into the villain of the story. Without her sister, Anna was lost and the only way to cope was to behave as if she was still there.
Emma Thompson and Kate Winslet in "Sense and Sensibility"

There is one actress who plays the role of the sister so well you almost forget you're watching made believe stories. It's Emma Thompson. In "Sense and Sensibility" and "Howard's End" she plays the sensible, responsible and caring older sister. She takes care of her siblings and picks up the pieces when they put themselves in problematic situations. Her younger sisters are played by Kate Winslet and in the latter by Helena Bonham Carter - Winslet is Marianne, looking for love and suffering when she finds it and Carter is umbrella stealing Helen - free spirited romantic who trusts too much and cares too much. It's always Thompson's character who grounds them in this world, so they wouldn't fly away into despair when the hardship comes.

"Sleepy Hallow"
The sister-sister relationship is also used as a contrast - the good one, bad one. The innocent one and the black sheep. We can see such distinction in two of Tim Burton's films - "Alice in Wonderland" and "Sleepy Hallow". In "Alice" two sisters - the White Queen (Anne Hathaway) and the Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter) fight over the crown in Wonderland. White Queen is peaceful, kind, graceful and sweet - Red one is cruel, evil and unforgiving.  There are also sisters in "Sleepy Hallow" - two blond girls in pink dresses we see in the back story of the Rider, later revealed to be good witch and the bad one, the main villain in the film. The Black sheep - good sister disambiguation is perhaps most clearly shown in "Coffee and Cigarettes" where Cate Blanchett plays two roles - blond woman of success and black haired sister - the screw up. The black sheep character is also the plot device to show the care the more grounded, responsible sister provides for another - like in "Rachel getting married" or "Hannah and her Sisters".

Interesting change to that formula can be seen in Lars Von Trier's Melancholia where Claire takes care of her deeply depressed sister Justine, but as the end of the world is upon them it's Justine who gives Claire peace. Both sisters, although so different in every aspect, in the face of ultimate end, stand together, supporting each other. "Repulsion" shows regret of Carol's sister who had not noticed the signs of her mental illness and instead of helping Carol she went on vacation, leaving her sister alone with her madness. Ingmar Bergman's "The Silence" changes the roles a bit - the less responsible sister is the one who is lucky and the sensible one is the one dying from incurable disease. The relationship between two women is very complex, the love is deeply hidden and what lies on the surface is hated codependency and resentment. In "My summer of love" eccentric character played by Emily Blunt pretends that her sister is ill and makes up all kinds of stories about her, to make the main heroine of the film feel for her and like her better.
Helen McCrory and Helena Bonham Carter in "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince"
There can also be two black sheep, although frankly one in much blacker than the other - Narcissa Malfoy (Helen McCrory) and Bellatrix Lestrange (Helena Bonham Carter, she really does sister role a lot, doesn't she?). Here the loyalty between two sisters is broken - Narcissa chooses her son and husband over Bellatrix and Bella chooses to fight with Voldemort to the end. The sisters relationships in "Harry Potter" series is actually one of the least affectionate in the whole story - just think about Petunia and Lily Evans.On the other hand brotherhood and motherhood are glorified, which is peculiar given how the bond between sisters and witchcraft go hand in hand.
"What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?"

The third kind of relationship, after love and dependancy, cinematic sisters have is hatred and rivalry. Perhaps the most fervent and superbly acted out by Joan Collins and Bette Davis - rivals in real life - in "What ever happened to baby Jane?". There is envy and the resentment between two women living in the same house - one handicapped, the other descending into alcoholism and madness. In the end they will try to reach forgiveness, but after years of bitterness is too late for that. The animosity is also shown in heart wrenching "Atonement" where Briony, the younger sister with vivid imagination, sees something and her misinterpretation leads to the imprisonment of her sister's Cecilia's boyfriend - Robbie. But in later scene we see that although two sisters never were too close - Cecilia was more grounded in reality than Briony, older and not shy, many years later - at least in Briony's mind - Cecilia was able to forgive her and even feel compassion  for her. That wasn't the case in the beginning part of "Elizabeth" where Mary (or Bloody Mary as the history remembers her) despised her sister Elizabeth and imprisoned her. There are many productions where we can see both girls - one was the daughter of Anne Boleyn, the other of Catherine of Aragorn. In Mary's mind Anne stole her father from her and her mother. As the wives of Henry VIII changed, each one of the girl was the favorite of different ones - Jane Seymour favored Mary, Anne of Cleves - Elizabeth. There was also the problematic case of religion - Mary was a catholic, Elizabeth was a protestant. But in the end, even if she was being called "a bastard"by her own sister, it's Elizabeth's reign that is praised after all those centuries.

Whether it's love or hatred, whether sisters are similiar or completely different, one thing is certain - this is a very strong bond, even if built on rivalry almost impossible to sever.  Whether the sisters love the same boy, want the same things or do something the other one can't forgive, in the end all the other things won't matter, all that matters is that they are family. In all those movies I've described only in fantasy genre - Tim Burton's films or Harry Potter series, the sisters doesn't get to reconcile. In real life it doesn't take dark Lords or crowns, king's love or ex boyfriend's evil ghost to cause falling out, it happens all the time, I presume. But I still envy everyone who has a sister.
Keira Knightley and Saoirse Ronan in "Atonement"

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