8 September 2004 | Bolesroor
In the grand tradition of biography pictures that sanctify their subjects comes "The White Angel," the "true" story of the lady with the lamp, the nurse who revolutionized nursing, Miss Florence Nightingale. Why does Hollywood insist on sanitizing and sweetening the lives of real people? The most blatant example of this is probably "Private Parts"- the life story of Howard Stern- which turns America's favorite sexually-stunted shock-jock bully into a misunderstood merry prankster, a teddy bear of a man fighting the good fight against prudes and censors. Right.
I caught "The White Angel" on TCM late one evening. It begins with Florence Nightingale- "Flo" to her contemporaries- rejecting tradition and refusing to marry and settle down. She senses a greater purpose and a place for women in military medicine. [In actuality Florence and her sister were encouraged to pursue education by their forward-thinking father.] As played by Kay Francis, Ms. Nightingale is a humorless, passionless saint with absolute confidence in her methods and philosophy. Kay plays the role as if she's riding a heroin high- deeply centered and somewhat removed. With the success of the film riding on this lead performance, we're left with a fascinatingly anti-climactic picture.
There is little if any dramatic conflict in the film- it has all the suspense of a book report. The encounters between Florence and other characters are all laughably wooden. Her antagonists openly profess their resentment of her to her face and she sits stoic, with eyes-wide, accepting the abuse and calmly declaring her intentions to proceed. In one particularly action-less sequence, Florence and her nurses storm the supply tent after the clerk tells them it's closed. "Does the war close at seven?" Florence asks, "Do they stop bringing in the wounded at seven?"
Before the bureaucrat gets the chance to answer, Florence has delicately and glamorously stepped past him, forcing her way inside with the help of the other nurses.
That's the most exciting moment in the movie.
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow stops by to gawk at her heroism and write the poem that would immortalize her. Crusty wounded soldiers smile at her tenderness as she walks the hospital halls at night checking on her patients. I had trouble keeping mine.
The story seems SO glossed-over and tidy (even for a biopic of the 30's) that one can't help but feel cheated by fabricated elements as well as the absence of significant actual events. When Florence arrives at the military hospital a soldier informs her that 57% of all wounded men die even under medical care... the trouble is we're never given an updated number as to a soldier's chance of survival. This is especially ironic due to the fact that a)Florence's Nightingale's arrival and improvement of the military medical system surely improved the survival rate and b) Nightingale herself was famous for her statistical analysis and record-keeping of mortality rates and other social phenomenas. Disappointing.
The film is ultimately a waste; it is predictable and pre-digested, not even diverting enough to hold my attention. Who knew changing the world could be so boring?