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Life In Her Hands (1951)


Main image of Life In Her Hands (1951)
35mm, black and white, 58 mins
DirectorPhilip Leacock
Production CompanyCrown Film Unit
Associate ProducerFrederick Wilson
ScreenplayMonica Dickens
 Anthony Steven
PhotographyFred Gamage
Art DirectorScott Macgregor
MusicClifton Parker

Cast: Kathleen Byron (Ann Peters); Bernadette O'Farrell (Mary Gordon); Jacqueline Charles (Michele Rennie); Jenny Laird (Matron); Robert Long (Jack Wilson); Grace Gavin (Sister McTavis)

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The life and training of a nurse seen through the eyes of a young widow who, unable to settle in a job after her husband's death, decides to become a nurse.

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Sponsored by the Ministry of Labour to encourage women to join the nursing profession, Life in Her Hands was part of a wider national recruitment campaign to address the chronic shortage of qualified nurses in post-war Britain. The newly-established NHS, with its increasing demands on monetary and staffing resources compounded the problem. Subsequently the government extended the recruitment drive overseas appealing to women workers in Commonwealth countries to come and work in British hospitals.

Taking the form of a story-documentary, the film transcends its informational purpose in its depiction of a young widow's grappling with complex emotional issues and Kathleen Byron, best known for her role as the unhinged Sister Ruth in Black Narcissus (d. Michael Powell/Emeric Pressburger, 1947), imbues the role of the protagonist, Anne Peters, with the emotional intensity that was her trademark. The actress's careful balancing of vulnerability and resiliance in expressing Anne's bereavement is reinforced by a strong script by Monica Dickens (great grand-daughter of Charles) and Anthony Steven, while her emotional state is further accentuated and externalised by dramatic camerawork (with regular close-ups of the protagonist's face) and an arresting score by Clifton Parker. Music and drama - the tools of melodrama - are deployed here to appeal to sentiment and target women audiences.

Contemporary attitudes in hospital culture are betrayed through exchanges with Anne's superiors, as when she is assisting in her first operation and the surgeon turns to her and says 'suppose you go and make me a cup of tea while we're waiting'. The sternness of the Matron and Sisters further demonstrate the impermeable hierarchical divides that existed between nurses and their seniors. The sister's reprimand of the nurse on night duty for using too much tea (which is kept locked away) reminds us that this is the post-war era, with rationing still very much in place. Subordination and diligence are presented as job requirements, but the film fulfils its remit to portray nursing as an attractive profession by devoting plenty of screen time promoting the benefits of the job.

The film's successful balancing of a well-scripted fictional narrative with factual information spring-boarded the career of its director, Philip Leacock, and paved the way for a feature film career. He deployed some of the same methods directing another medically-themed film in the same year, Out of True (1951), a fictional account of a nervous breakdown.

Katy McGahan

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Video Clips
Complete film (56:00)
Monthly Film Bulletin review
Something to Offer (1969)
Byron, Kathleen (1923-2009)
Leacock, Philip (1917-1990)
Crown Film Unit