The Nun’s Story Blu-ray Review

4.5 Stars A masterpiece.
The Nun's Story Screenshot

The Nun’s Story is a superb screen version of a devout best-seller.

The Nun's Story (1959)
Released: 18 Jul 1959
Rated: Approved
Runtime: 149 min
Director: Fred Zinnemann
Genre: Drama
Cast: Audrey Hepburn, Peter Finch, Edith Evans
Writer(s): Robert Anderson, Kathryn Hulme
Plot: After leaving a wealthy Belgian family to become a nun, Sister Luke struggles with her devotion to her vows during crisis, disappointment, and World War II.
IMDB rating: 7.5
MetaScore: 78

Disc Information
Studio: Warner Brothers
Distributed By: Warner Archive
Video Resolution: 1080P/AVC
Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1
Audio: English 2.0 DTS-HDMA
Subtitles: English SDH
Rating: Not Rated
Run Time: 2 Hr. 29 Min.
Package Includes: Blu-ray
Case Type: keep case
Disc Type: BD50 (dual layer)
Region: All
Release Date: 05/14/2024
MSRP: $21.99

The Production: 5/5

Fred Zinnemann’s The Nun’s Story is an inarguable masterpiece: part devout docudrama, part human interest biography, it’s a film whose richness, depth, and profound reverence (without being cloyingly pious) has more than stood the test of time; it’s transcended it. With a luminous star in her greatest role and an astonishing cast of the top character actresses of the era in memorable parts that are imminently rewatchable, The Nun’s Story is close to being the perfect motion picture.

The devout daughter of a renowned surgeon (Dean Jagger), Gabrielle van der Mal (Audrey Hepburn) desires nothing more than to allow her religious faith and her love of medicine to propel her to a life of serving as a nursing nun in the Belgian Congo. But before her medical studies, she must become proficient in the religious life, and the life of a nun, as she learns through agonizing trial and error, is anything but easy. After painstakingly learning the rigors of convent life through her half year as a postulant and a year as a novice, the newly anointed Sister Luke excels in her medical studies but finds more frustration standing in the way of her dreams of the Congo. Even her eventual transfer there comes with its own disappointments and struggles, and with war clouds gathering over Europe as the 1930s melt into 1940, Sister Luke’s future seems fraught with uncertainty and an eventual facing of her own belief system with a world at war.

Based on Kathryn C. Hulme’s best-selling memoir, Robert Anderson’s Oscar-nominated screenplay spends its first forty-five minutes giving us detailed looks at the life of apprentice nuns. It’s an eye-opening examination of what a life of chastity, poverty, and obedience means in the truest sense, at times seeming an almost alien existence with rituals which seem almost bizarre to the layman but are also endlessly fascinating. There is a bit of narrative thrust for Gabrielle/Sister Luke during the film’s first hour, but her story really takes off once she leaves the convent walls and heads to the College of Tropical Medicine. From there (where director Fred Zinnemann crafts achingly tense dramatic moments during an oral examination and Reverand Mother Marcella – Ruth White – who isn’t much of a fan of Sister Luke), we get further eye-popping sequences at a mental institution where Gaby is assigned and then the lengthy second half of the film in the Congo where Sister Luke’s expertise is on full display impressing even a genius atheistic surgeon (Peter Finch) and a series of encounters both amusing and horrifying. Throughout, events propel themselves in very orderly fashion through Fred Zinnemann’s expert direction with our attention always on Sister Luke’s struggles attempting to reconcile her sense of right and wrong with the convent’s restrictions on what nuns may and may not do. It’s the climax of those struggles which leads to the story’s concluding sequences, as inevitable as her father’s words were to her on the day before she first entered the convent’s doors.

In most amazing fashion, Audrey Hepburn grows up before our eyes: a fresh-faced, eager-eyed teenager at the beginning and a fully mature woman by the end (one of Zinnemann’s most special moments occurs when the older Sister Luke returns to the Mother House and happens upon a new class of incoming candidates treading the same path she had walked almost two decades before). Her struggles are palpable throughout, and yet there are joyful moments and some affecting ones, too (her leaving the Congo behind as a line of people she has touched wave good-bye to her is one such moment). It’s the greatest performance she ever gave in a film, and while it didn’t lead to the Oscar, it did win for her the New York Film Critics Circle Best Actress award. That series of great actresses playing her various Reverend Mothers in her various convents are nothing short of magnificent: Edith Evans imperious but loving, Peggy Ashcroft as the gentle but firm head of the sisters in the Congo, the spiky Ruth White who rules the roost at college, Beatrice Straight as the understanding Mother Christophe at the sanitarium, and flinty Barbara O’Neill who’s in charge of Sister’s Luke last stand in war-torn Belgium. Mildred Dunnock, Patricia Collinge, and Rosalie Crutchley add weight and truth to other scenes at the Mother House. Elsewhere, Colleen Dewhurst is electrifying as a violent schizophrenic, Patricia Bosworth offers some sweet solace as a fellow novice who can’t go through with her final vows, and Dorothy Alison is an unforgettably devout Sister Aurelie in the Congo who wants more than anything to convert the natives to Christianity. Of the men in the cast, Dean Jagger is a most loving father for Gaby, Peter Finch is cunningly sarcastic yet concerned and helpful as the swaggering Dr. Fortunati, Stephen Murray gets a moment or two to impress as the Congo’s Father Andre, and Errol John adds a memorable portrayal as hospital deputy Illunga.

Video: 5/5

3D Rating: NA

The film has been framed at its theatrical aspect ratio of 1.85:1 and is presented in 1080p using the AVC codec. For the first time on home video, it is clear that Zinnemann wanted the European convent scenes of the first half to be a bit wan in color to allow the Congo scenes to really pop, and that they do! There is clarity and plenty of detail to be seen throughout, but the greens and reds on display during the African scenes are treasurable. The movie has been divided into 31 chapters.

Audio: 5/5

The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono sound mix is solid throughout and is typical of its era, but with all of the various sounds of Africa and Franz Waxman’s magnificent, Oscar-nominated background score for the film, it’s a soundtrack that cries out for a stereophonic recording. Dialogue is certainly clear and easy to discern, and there are no age-related artifacts like hiss, crackle, pops, or flutter to mar the listening experience.

Special Features: 1/5

Theatrical Trailer (3:13, HD)

Overall: 4.5/5

In a career of many masterpieces (High Noon, From Here to Eternity to name just two), The Nun’s Story finds director Fred Zinnemann at his absolute zenith. His expertise also appears to have carried over to his cast and crew earning many of them Oscar nominations and bringing in a surprising box-office haul to boot, registering as one of Audrey Hepburn’s highest grossing films. This Warner Archive Blu-ray package disappointingly doesn’t offer a bonus feature array worthy of the film, but it’s the only negative in an otherwise superb classic release. Highest recommendation!

Matt has been reviewing films and television professionally since 1974 and has been a member of Home Theater Forum’s reviewing staff since 2007, his reviews now numbering close to three thousand. During those years, he has also been a junior and senior high school English teacher earning numerous entries into Who’s Who Among America’s Educators and spent many years treading the community theater boards as an actor in everything from Agatha Christie mysteries to Stephen Sondheim musicals.

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bujaki

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I very much want that film in my collection. Possibly Anthony Franciosa's best performance.
Alas, it's a Fox film. The only way to see it in its OAR is via the Amazon stream. All other streaming services offer the P&S version only.
The acting is superb throughout.
 

roxy1927

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I found it a very difficult depressing film to get through. I think growing up Catholic had something to do with it. A great film but I was astounded it was a huge hit at Radio City. It seemed certainly not for the Music Hall/summer tourist crowd. It is so unsparing. Bizarrely the stage show included an Alaskan earthquake and everything going up in fire finale which sounds like fun but not with this film. I read Zinnemann wanted no Catholic actresses to play the nuns. Perhaps they would have wanted to give their characters more warmth than he wanted.

I could have throttled Pauline Kael for giving away the ending.
 

richardburton84

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I found it a very difficult depressing film to get through. I think growing up Catholic had something to do with it. A great film but I was astounded it was a huge hit at Radio City. It seemed certainly not for the Music Hall/summer tourist crowd. It is so unsparing. Bizarrely the stage show included an Alaskan earthquake and everything going up in fire finale which sounds like fun but not with this film. I read Zinnemann wanted no Catholic actresses to play the nuns. Perhaps they would have wanted to give their characters more warmth than he wanted.

I could have throttled Pauline Kael for giving away the ending.

The original trailer also kinda sort of gave away the ending (I guess movie trailers in those days were less concerned about spoilers than they are today).
 

Daniel_BB

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About the score, it was recorded in stereophonic sound in Italy.
 

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richardburton84

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About the score, it was recorded in stereophonic sound in Italy.

From what I’ve read over at Film Score Monthly, Waxman made some revisions back in Hollywood (these apparently only survive in mono, as is typical for Warner scores for these period). That CD (which I’m pleased to say I own) primarily uses Waxman’s original compositions. Steve Hoffman also gave a very interesting account of how he managed to salvage the stereo masters used for that disc.

 

Daniel_BB

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From what I’ve read over at Film Score Monthly, Waxman made some revisions back in Hollywood (these apparently only survive in mono, as is typical for Warner scores for these period). That CD (which I’m pleased to say I own) primarily uses Waxman’s original compositions. Steve Hoffman also gave a very interesting account of how he managed to salvage the stereo masters used for that disc.


The complete score was also available a few years ago but I think it is a bootleg. The score is in mono.
 

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richardburton84

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the film and music score are outstanding. I had copy of the bootleg as mentioned but it rotted away within 12 months !!!!!!!!!! the official CD is still playing fine. Waxman was ever so good a composer.

It’s a pity Warner is so difficult to deal with nowadays with regards to its music branch. Otherwise, I would love a complete and remastered version of this fine score.
 

PaulRossen

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It’s a pity Warner is so difficult to deal with nowadays with regards to its music branch. Otherwise, I would love a complete and remastered version of this fine score.
The shorter, legit release is a much better listening experience than the unauthorized, complete score.
 

richardburton84

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The shorter, legit release is a much better listening experience than the unauthorized, complete score.

Looking at the booklet of said unauthorized release posted above, I’m sure it doesn’t help that the alternates are placed within the program immediately after the versions used instead of placing them in a bonus section as is usually done on legit releases. I would still like to see a remastered edition from either Intrada or LLL if Warner starts cooperating with the soundtrack labels (the legit release was done more than 30 years ago and could probably use a sonic upgrade).
 

Jeff Fearnside

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If this is better placed in another thread, any moderators may feel free to move it, but since it's come up in this thread, I'll ask a question here: When a studio buys the music rights for a film, are those rights only for the run of the initial theatrical release? What about a theatrical re-release? I've never heard of such a re-release being held up because of music rights issues. Yet from what I'm reading here, it sounds like every time a film is reproduced in another iteration (DVD, Blu-ray, 4K UHD-BD), the music rights have to be cleared and purchased again. Seriously? It's not written in the initial contracts that the studios can reproduce films in different iterations and keep the same non-exclusive music rights that allowed the film to be made in the first place?

Apologies for my ignorance on this. It just seems a cumbersome way to do business!
 

KPmusmag

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I am sure others who are more knowledgeable will weigh in, but what I have read is that since home video did not exist when the contract was written, those rights were not included in the contract. Home video was not even a concept when this movie was made. Many TV shows (i.e. WKRP in Cincinnati) were affected as well; broadcast and re-runs were covered, but not home video -- or cable TV, which also required its own clearances.
 

Douglas R

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I am sure others who are more knowledgeable will weigh in, but what I have read is that since home video did not exist when the contract was written, those rights were not included in the contract. Home video was not even a concept when this movie was made. Many TV shows (i.e. WKRP in Cincinnati) were affected as well; broadcast and re-runs were covered, but not home video -- or cable TV, which also required its own clearances.
Surely there's no suggestion that the Blu-ray was held up due to music rights issues. As far as I know and recall there is no music in the film other than that contracted by Warner Bros and composed by Franz Waxman is there? It's only when a film used pre-existing music, not owned by the studio and produced prior to the advent of home video, that issues of music clearance arose.
 
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