Fred Zinnemann’s production is a soaring and luminous film. Audrey Hepburn has her most demanding film role, and she gives her finest performance. Despite the seriousness of the underlying theme, The Nun’s Story [from the book by Kathryn C. Hulme] has the elements of absorbing drama, pathos, humor, and a gallery of memorable scenes and characters.
The struggle is that of a young Belgian woman (Hepburn), to be a successful member of an order of cloistered nuns. The order (not specified) is as different from the ordinary ‘regular guy’ motion picture conception of nuns as the army is from the Boy Scouts. Its aim is total merging of self.
Although the story is confined chiefly to three convents, in Belgium and the Congo, the struggle is fierce. Hepburn, attempting to be something she is not, is burned fine in the process.
One of the consistent gratifications is the cast. In addition to Edith Evans as the Mother Superior, who might have been a Renaissance prelate, there is Peggy Ashcroft, another convent superior, but less the dignitary, more the anchorite. Mildred Dunnock is a gentle, maiden aunt of a nun; Patricia Collinge, a gossipy cousin.
Peter Finch and Dean Jagger are the only males in the cast of any stature. Finch, as an intellient, attractive agnostic, conveys a romantic attachment for Hepburn, but in terms that can give no offense. Dagger is Hepburn’s perturbed loving father but contributes a valuable facet on the story.
Despite the seeming austerity of the story, Zinnemann has achieved a pictorial sweep and majesty. Franz Planer’s Technicolor photography has a Gothic grace and muted splendor, Franz Waxman’s score is a great one, giving proper place to cathedral organs and Congo drums.
1959: Nominations: Best Picture, Director, Actress (Audrey Hepburn), Adapted Screenplay, Color Cinematography, Scoring of a Dramatic Picture, Sound