I was reminded how much I miss Audrey Hepburn the other day when The Nun’s Story played in the U.S. on TCM. As you probably know if you’re a Hepburn fan, she never considered herself an actress and always classified herself a dancer. If she’d had her druthers, she’d have been a Balanchine girl, or at the very least a choreographer, but fate had other plans and thrust her into the limelight as an actress who occasionally enjoyed opportunities to dance in her films.
I lived with Audrey Hepburn for five years writing first Dutch Girl and then Warrior, and that’s why I say I miss her. Any author will tell you that strong relationships are formed during the creation of a biography and you’re living with your subject, hearing her voice, walking in her footsteps, making sense of her decisions—and sometimes yelling at her, “You fool! Don’t do that!”
Audrey was one tough woman, hardened by all the trials of life smack-dab in the middle of a world war. She lived by instinct, and I can argue instinct was her superpower because she used her instincts to make a living as an actress and mold her own personality into whatever character she portrayed, even without formal stage training as an actress.
And there it all was in The Nun’s Story, where the non-Catholic Audrey portrayed long-suffering Sister Luke, a woman of passion and talent trying to live a life of humble obedience serving others in Europe and Africa. It’s a beautiful performance, always understated, with never a false step that I could see, and it earned her an Academy Award nomination and a Best Actress award from the British Academy of Film and Television Arts.
If you’ve read Dutch Girl: Audrey Hepburn and World War II, you know what Audrey endured in the war. The parallels in the plot of The Nun’s Story always startle me—in the last reel of the picture, World War II breaks out in Europe and Sister Luke is stationed in the Netherlands when the Germans march in. We hear that the Nazis have swept through Holland and forced a capitulation, and then that Sister Luke’s father has died in the fighting. When another nun starts to work for the Dutch Resistance, Sister Luke tries to look the other way but still sanctions the actions of her colleague. Finally, Sister Luke leaves the order so she can do her own fighting on the outside, and the last shot we see is this young woman walking out into the streets of the Netherlands toward an uncertain future.
Imagine what she was thinking as she made this picture. Imagine her motivations for these scenes, as when German soldiers swarm onto the set. She had seen that uniform every day for years. Her uncle and cousin and many friends had been executed by men in that uniform. German soldiers had caused so much pain and hardship that the sight of those costumed extras, and the plot of invasion and death, could only have produced visceral reactions.
In preparation for making the picture, Audrey met with the author of the book The Nun’s Story, Kathryn Hulme, and through Hulme formed a friendship with Marie-Louise Habets, whose story was fictionalized by Hulme. Like Hepburn, Habets was born in Belgium and lived through the war in Europe. After leaving the convent, Habets did indeed join the Dutch Resistance, as did Audrey Hepburn. Until publication of Dutch Girl, the world didn’t fully grasp Audrey’s role in the war—after all, she was only 15 so what could she have done? Well, she did a lot, as it turned out, displaying toughness and discipline that would serve her through a variety of situations over a lifetime, including her work in The Nun’s Story. This was my third viewing of The Nun’s Story and I appreciate it now more than ever for reminding me of my very dear friend Audrey. We had some times together, you and I. They are with me always and I’ll cherish them, and you, forever.
Loved reading this. It makes me want to see Thr Num’s Story again with a new perspective. Well done!
As I get older, I see this film as probably my favourite of hers. I think maybe because it reflects my own departure from the Christian church. I dedicated myself young (and even thought about becoming a nun, but then realized that was a Catholic thing, and I wasn’t Catholic) but had to leave as I learned more about the Bible… stepping out of something familiar, a community, with rules and routines, and trusting yourself… I admire Marie-Louise Habets.
Also, I actually really like the photo of Audrey with her bags under her eyes. It’s nice to see her with no/less make-up, more relatable and human…
Easily my favorite Audrey Hepburn film. As you say, her performance was so understated yet powerful because her eyes were so expressive. I first saw it at age ten when it was originally released. It left an enormous impression, and I’ve watched it several times since, always seeing something new. She’s good in light, romantic comedy which most critics consider her best work. But The Nun’s Story has been overlooked for much too long.