Whistle Down the Wind is a truly extraordinary film. Bryan Forbes' debut feature is a gut-wrenching, darkly comic allegory which takes one of history's most spectacular events and retells it in the most bittersweet of circumstances. It foreshadows both the gritty, compelling realism of Ken Loach and other great Christian allegories such as Being There and The Green Mile. Most of all, it's a fantastic commentary on childhood, belief and the erosion of both by the grim realities of the adult world.
It is remarkable that a film about some of the most complex aspects of theology should be so accessible and welcoming to the casual viewer. The film's treatment of its biblical subject matter is neither bald nor manipulative; it never glosses over important questions, nor does it ever make a deliberate tug on the heartstrings of its audience. Every shred of emotion we have for Kathy, Blakey and the rest is completely genuine, and in its third act the film builds to a breathless final scene, in which we are completely in the shoes of the central character.
In a number of ways, this is the opposite of The Railway Children, both as a novel and later as film. Where The Railway Children is essentially light, airy and carefree, with only moments of real danger, Whistle Down the Wind feels strict and repressive. Arthur Ibbetson's brooding cinematography paints the Lancashire countryside as somewhere stark and unforgiving; the early scenes of Kathy and Charles walking over the hills are closer to the 'dance of death' at the end of The Seventh Seal than to Jenny Agutter's pleasant frolicking along the railway lines. Shooting in black-and-white gives the film a Bergman-esque sense of pathos, particularly towards the end where Kathy's world virtually comes apart.
The film makes it clear very early on that it is a Biblical allegory, reinterpreting several key passages from the Gospels. The score riffs on the carol 'We Three Kings' and the scene of the children presenting gifts to Alan Bates in the barn is a clear restaging of the nativity, with Kathy et al as the shepherds and the other children as the Magi. In this version, the "Arabian charm bracelet" and free gift in the comic stand in for gold, frankincense and myrrh, while the story Bates reads from the comic represents either the parables or the Sermon on the Mount. This kind of gesture is present throughout the film, right up to the moment where Bates is searched and holds up his arms like he is being hung on the cross.
Although it restages the story of Jesus from birth to death, the central message of Whistle Down the Wind lies in the middle of Matthew's gospel: "unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven." This is not a film which views children as stupid, or gullible, or easily manipulated. If anything they are the opposite, possessing a large amount of common sense and reasoning. This may be structured around something which we as an audience know to be 'untrue', but the children's 'faith' in Blakey is never portrayed as irrational or foolish.
In contrast to the children's openness and willingness to believe, the adults in the film are reluctant to talk about religion, or indeed any moral issues which are outside their own interests. The film does touch on church, Sunday school and the Salvation Army, but all the scenes directly involving these see the adults skirting the issues, dodging the difficult questions and worrying instead about trivial matters like lead and guttering. In the scene in the café between Kathy and the vicar (who can't even remember her name), his answer to her question quickly gets off topic and becomes an irrelevant sermon. The bully is the oldest of the children and the most prominent sceptic in the group, to the point at which he slaps Kathy when she first tells him the news. He is already on his way to adulthood, settling for dark monotony over other-worldly hope.
The idea that the film puts across so brilliantly is very similar to that hinted at in Being There: namely that if Jesus were to return to earth, we would not recognise or accept Him. This is a world which clings onto religion and traditional order, and in doing so has turned its back on the childlike nature of faith, the only thing which a relationship with Jesus requires. The adults in the film are so wrapped up in their own affairs, so sure of their own convictions and traditions, that they are unable to even accept for a moment the possibility that Kathy is telling the truth.
This meaty subject is well-handed by a subtle script adapted from Mary Hayley Bell's novel. The film revels in the earthiness of its dialogue; it doesn't feel like a pretend version of Lancashire, with the characters as parodies of working-class life. Forbes' direction is notably unfussy, shooting key moments in the most understated way to allow the themes of the dialogue to speak for themselves. The best example of this comes after the death of Charles' kitten, where he and Kathy discuss why things have to die. Rather than make this a confrontation, Forbes shoots it with the camera at their backs as they fling pebbles into the lake. The film treats the deepest philosophical questions on a level playing field with every other issue the characters face, arguing that these questions are just as important and relevant as anything which the adults consider superior.
The bleakness of the characters' predicament is punctuated by a wonderful sense of humour. The film derives its initial comedy from the warm, brutal honesty of the children, largely on the part of Charles who is wonderfully played by Alan Barnes. In an early scene, Kathy expresses doubts about the Bible being true, and Charles spits out the line, "wait 'til Jesus comes and gets you!". Later, after his sister remarks that Jesus can do anything, he asks if the Lord can provide him with a big chocolate cake for his birthday. Gradually the film becomes more pathos-ridden and this outré kind of humour is replaced with a deep, underlying sadness. By the end we are in the same territory as Charlie Chaplin's The Kid, and the only comedic element is a conditionally happy ending.
Hayley Mills' central performance is incredible, being truly naturalistic and yet wise beyond her years. Bernard Lee, most famous for playing M in the James Bond films, is very compelling as the father, who attempts to stamp his authority on the household but is ultimately in the pocket of Auntie Dorothy. And Alan Bates' performance is very good, on a par with his best work in Women in Love.
Whistle Down the Wind is a magnificent piece of British filmmaking, with strong performances and an even stronger script which convey deep questions about life and purpose in the most accessible way. The dialogue is intelligent without being pretentious, the direction is suitably unfussy, and the film is emotionally gripping to the point at which at moves you to tears. Without this, Being There, The Green Mile and Angela's Ashes probably would not have been made. But more than that, it demonstrates the relevance of a story which is so often ignored in today's society. It is a subtle reminder of the power of faith and the need to see the world with the open eyes of a child.