Reading time: 33 MIN

A Brief History of Films About Sisters

All mentioned films in article
Not released

The phrase 'chalk and cheese' could have been invented for the three sisters in Marley Morrison's new comedy, Sweethearts. Indeed, AJ (Nell Barlow), Lucy (Sophia di Martino) and Dayna (Tabitha Byron) are so distinctive that they got us at Cinema Paradiso thinking about our favourite screen sisters.

Just to get it straight, we're not talking about nuns or nursing sisters. Nor are we going to discuss brothers and sisters or those close-knit groups found in the likes of Callie Khouri's Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood (2002) and Ken Kwapis's Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants (2005). We don't even mean those feminist sisters who, Annie Lennox and Aretha Franklin assure us, are doing it for themselves. Instead, we want to focus on the sisters, half-sisters and stepsisters who have grown up together (or apart) and have come to love or loathe each other.

Listen to the lyrics of the song, 'Sisters', sung by siblings Betty (Rosemary Clooney) and Judy Haynes (Vera-Ellen) - and later lip-sync'd by Bob Wallace (Bing Crosby) and Phil Davis (Danny Kaye) - in Michael Curtiz's much-loved Irving Berlin musical, White Christmas (1954). These are just the kind of 'devoted sisters' that we have in mind. 'Those who've seen us,' the tune insists, 'Know that not a thing can come between us.' But, the same verse ends with the line: 'Lord help the mister who comes between me and my sister. And Lord help the sister who comes between me and my man.' Catch our drift? Then, let us begin.

Sis Lit Classics

As scholars can't decide whether the term 'weird sisters' means that the three witches in William Shakespeare's Macbeth are related or not, we shall leave you to decide for yourself from among the dozen or so versions of the play available to rent from Cinema Paradiso. Instead, we shall begin our overview of literary sisters with Goneril, Regan and Cordelia, who appear together in a crucial scene early in King Lear.

A still from White Christmas (1954)
A still from White Christmas (1954)

By flattering their father, the first two are granted lands and titles. But the beloved youngest refuses to make fine speeches and is banished for her pains. Cinema Paradiso has eight different tellings on offer, which are listed here by the respective actress trios: Elza Radzina, Galina Volchek and Valentina Shendrikova ( Grigori Kozintsev, 1971 ); Irene Worth, Susan Engel and Anne-Lise Gabold ( Peter Brook, 1971 ); Beth Harris, Ann Lynn and Wendy Allnutt ( Tony Davenall, 1974 ); Rosalind Cash, Ellen Holly and Lee Chamberlin ( Edwin Sherin, 1974 ); Dorothy Tutin, Diana Rigg and Anna Calder-Marshall ( Michael Elliott, 1983 ); Caroline Lennon, Claire Lurie and Phillipa Peak ( Brian Blessed, 1999 ); Frances Barber, Monica Dolan and Romola Garai ( Trevor Nunn, 2008 ); and Rakie Ayola, Debbie Korley and Pepter Lunkuse ( Michael Buffong, 2016 ).

It's tempting to see Goneril and Regan as the forerunners of the Wicked Stepsisters in Cinderella, a story with roots in Antiquity that was popularised by Charles Perrault and the Brothers Grimm. Once again, there are lots of variations on the theme (and with many differently named stepsisters), so we shall invite you to use the Cinema Paradiso searchline to take your pick.

Back with the Bard, Franco Zeffirelli's take on The Taming of the Shrew (1967) has Bianca (Natasha Pyne) longing for sharp-tongued sister Katharina (Elizabeth Taylor) to meet her match in Petruchio (Richard Burton) so that she can start courting Lucentio (Michael York). Gil Junger's 10 Things I Hate About You (1999) relocates the action to Padua High School outside Seattle, where Bianca Stratford (Larisa Oleynik) is not allowed to start dating before her older sister, Kate (Julia Stiles), who has no time for such romantic folderol.

Finding husbands for their five daughters proves quite a problem for Mr and Mrs Bennet in Jane Austen's 1813 novel, Pride and Prejudice, which has been filmed on numerous occasions. Sadly, we can't bring you Robert Z. Leonard's maligned 1940 version, which pitted Laurence Olivier's Darcy against Greer Garson's Elizabeth Bennet, while Maureen O'Sullivan (Jane), Ann Rutherford (Lydia), Heather Angel (Catherine) and Marsha Hunt (Mary) made up the family. However, Cinema Paradiso can atone in several irresistible ways.

A still from 10 Things I Hate About You (1999)
A still from 10 Things I Hate About You (1999)

In Simon Langton's fabled 1995 BBC version, a wet-shirted Colin Firth catches the eye of Jennifer Ehle, while Susannah Harker (Jane), Julia Sawalha (Lydia), Polly Maberly (Catherine) and Lucy Briers (Mary) look on admiringly, while Joe Wright's 2005 feature, Pride & Prejudice, twins Matthew Macfadyen and Keira Knightley as the haughty lovers, while Rosamund Pike (Jane), Carey Mulligan (Catherine), Jena Malone (Lydia) and Talulah Riley (Mary) complete a stellar line-up of Bennet girls. We can also bring you such twists on the tale as Gurinder Chadha's Bride & Prejudice (2004), Daniel Percival's Death Comes to Pemberley (2013) and Burr Steers's Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (2016).

For her work in adapting Austen's 1811 novel, Sense and Sensibility, Emma Thompson won the Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay. She was also nominated for her performance as Elinor Dashwood, who doesn't always see eye to eye with her impetuous younger sister, Marianne (Kate Winslet), in Ang Lee's 1995 adaptation, which also won the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival.

Historical siblings occupy us next, as we explore the biopics made about the Brontë Sisters and the features that have been adapted from their landmark tomes. Regrettably, no one has had the sense to sponsor UK disc releases of either Curtis Bernhardt's Devotion (1946), with Olivia De Havilland, Ida Lupino and Nancy Coleman as Charlotte, Emily and Anne, or André Téchiné's The Brontë Sisters (1979), which cast Marie-France Pisier, Isabelle Adjani and Isabelle Huppert in the respective roles. However, Sally Wainwright's To Walk Inside (2016) shows how Charlotte (Finn Atkins), Emily (Chloe Pirrie) and Anne (Charlie Murphy) turned to writing as an escape from the domestic travails around them.

A still from Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (2016) With Bella Heathcote And Lily James
A still from Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (2016) With Bella Heathcote And Lily James

Charlotte's masterpiece, Jane Eyre (1847), has been reworked several times and Cinema Paradiso offers users the chance to compare Joan Fontaine and Orson Welles as Jane and Rochester in Robert Stevenson's 1943 version, as well as the pairings of Zelah Clarke and Timothy Dalton for Julian Aymes (1983) , Charlotte Gainsbourg and William Hurt for Franco Zeffirelli (1996) , Ruth Wilson and Toby Stephens for Susanna White (2006) , and Mia Wasikowska and Michael Fassbender for Cary Joji Fukunaga (2011) .

Published the same year under the pseudonym Ellis Bell, Emily's haunting Gothic romance, Wuthering Heights, has tempted several more film and television directors. Laurence Olivier and Merle Oberon played Heathcliff and Cathy Earnshaw in William Wyler's 1939 Hollywood interpretation. Subsequently, the parts have gone to Ian McShane and Angela Scoular for Peter Sasdy (1967) , Timothy Dalton and Anna Calder-Marshall for Robert Fuest (1970) , Ken Hutchinson and Kay Adshead for Peter Hammond and Dick Coles (1978) , Lucas Belvaux and Fabienne Babe for Jacques Rivette (1985) , Ralph Fiennes and Juliette Binoche for Peter Kosminsky (1992) , Robert Cavanah and Orla Brady for David Skynner (1998) , Tom Hardy and Charlotte Riley for Coky Giedroyc (2009) , and James Howson and Kaya Scodelario for Andrea Arnold (2011) . Mike Vogel and Erika Christensen have even played Heath and Cate with a pumping musical soundtrack in Suri Krishnamma's MTV's Wuthering Heights (2003).

To our knowledge, there hasn't been a rock reinterpretation of Louisa May Alcott's Little Women (1868-69), which chronicles the struggles of the March family in mid-19th-century Massachusetts. Adaptations of the sequels, Little Men (1871) and Jo's Boys (1886) have also been thin on the ground. But Cinema Paradiso has a typically fine selection at your disposal, starting with George Cukor's Little Women (1933), which boasted a splendid cast of Marmee (Spring Byington), Meg (Frances Dee), Jo (Katharine Hepburn), Beth (Jean Parker) and Amy (Joan Bennett).

Ridiculously, no one has seen fit to release, Mervyn LeRoy's Little Women (1949), even though the cast is exceptional: Marmee (Mary Astor), Meg (Janet Leigh), Jo (June Allyson), Beth (Margaret O'Brien) and Amy (Elizabeth Taylor). But small screen aficionados can rejoice in the fact that it's possible to rent the charming BBC serialisation of Little Women (Paddy Russell, 1970), with Stephanie Bidmead (Marmee), Jo Rowbottom (Meg), Angela Down (Jo), Sarah Craze (Beth) and Janina Faye (Amy).

A still from Little Women (1933)
A still from Little Women (1933)

In more recent times, Gillian Armstrong's Little Women (1994) was long held to be the benchmark, with its star-studded ensemble of Marmee (Susan Sarandon), Meg (Trini Alvarado), Jo (Winona Ryder), Beth (Claire Danes) and Amy (Kirsten Dunst). But Greta Gerwig's Little Women (2019) put a fresh spin on the timeless tale, with the aid of Laura Dern (Marmee), Emma Watson (Meg), Saoirse Ronan (Jo), Eliza Scanlen (Beth) and Florence Pugh (Amy). The choice is all yours.

Anton Chekhov's 1901 play was given room to breathe in Laurence Olivier's Three Sisters (1970), as it follows the travails of Olga (Jeanne Watts), Masha (Joan Plowright) and Irina (Louise Purnell) in a small Russian garrison town, as secrets and lies come tumbling out as the soldiers prepare to withdraw. Uniforms also become prevalent in Victor Fleming's multi-Oscar-winning adaptation of Margaret Mitchell's bestseller, Gone With the Wind (1939). Indeed, rumours of the impending Civil War threaten to spoil the gathering at the Tara plantation in Georgia thrown by Gerald O'Hara (Thomas Mitchell) for his daughters, Scarlett (Vivien Leigh), Suellen (Evelyn Keyes) and Careen (Ann Rutherford).

Twice the Trouble With Twins

On 13 June 1986, Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen were born in Sherman Oaks, California. Acting from the age of six, they became a showbiz phenomenon and Cinema Paradiso picks up their story, as they started playing teenage twins. In Alan Metter's Billboard Dad (1998), they take out a hoarding in Hollywood to find a new partner for their father, while the same director's Passport to Paris (1999) sees them having fun sightseeing, shopping and romancing after going to visit their grandfather in France.

In David Steinberg's Switching Goals (1999), the Olsens find themselves selected for soccer teams that don't suit their personalities. So fashionista Emma agrees to swap with tomboy Sam. They are sent Down Under as part of the FBI's witness protection programme in Craig Shapiro's Our Lips Are Sealed (2000), after seeing a crime and then blabbing about it.

Shapiro's Winning London (2001) sent them across the pond, as Riley becomes a last-minute replacement for the team that Chloe hopes will do well at a Model United Nations debating competition. The Eternal City beckons in Steve Purcell's When in Rome (2002) so that Charli and Leila can discover why they have been fired from the fashion internships they have striven so hard to secure.

In an overdue Parent Trap twist, the Olsens play estranged siblings who have to work together in order to win a college scholarship on a TV reality show in Craig Shapiro's The Challenge (2003) before they struck out for the Big Apple with truant officer Eugene Levy hot on their heels in Dennie Gordon's New York Minute (2004). This proved to be the Olsen swan song, as Ashley decided to retire from the screen to focus on her fashion label.

Mary-Kate was seen solo in George Hickenlooper's Factory Girl (2006), Jonathan Levine's The Wackness (2008) and Daniel Barnz's Beastly (2011). Notably, the latter was released in the same year that younger sister, Elizabeth Olsen, made her full debut in Sean Durkin's Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011). In the subsequent decade, she has easily eclipsed the twins' acting efforts and is currently ensconced in the Marvel Cinematic Universe as Wanda Maximoff (aka Scarlet Witch) in Joss Whedon's Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015), and Anthony and Joe Russo's Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014), Captain America: Civil War (2016), Avengers: Infinity War (2018) and Avengers: Endgame (2019). She's also due to appear in Sam Raimi's Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness (2022).

A still from Captain America: Civil War (2016) With Anthony Mackie
A still from Captain America: Civil War (2016) With Anthony Mackie

Returning to the realm of fictional twins, there were two Greta Garbos for the price of one in George Cukor's Two-Faced Woman (1941), which turned out to be the Swede's final feature before she astonished Hollywood by retiring after just 24 pictures at the age of 36. After dominating the US box-office charts for a decade, Betty Grable also called time early in 1955. However, she can be seen on fine form in Irving Cummings's The Dolly Sisters (1945), a biopic of Jennie (Grable) and Rosie Dolly (June Haver), the identical Hungarian-born twins who became a vaudeville sensation in fin de siècle Paris and New York.

The Queen of Technicolor was seen to exotic advantage in Robert Siodmak's Cobra Woman (1944), which has Ramu (Jon Hall) enlist the help of his friend Kado (Sabu) after fiancée Tallea (Maria Montez) is abducted and taken to a neighbouring island where her sister, Naja (also Montez), rules with a rod of iron. By contrast, noirish shadows are cast over the action in Robert Siodmak's The Dark Mirror (1946), in which Lieutenant Stevenson (Thomas Mitchell) and psychiatrist Scott Elliott (Lew Ayres) have trouble telling Terry and Ruth Collins (Olivia De Havilland) apart, which is worrying because one of them is a psychotic killer.

Allan Dwan's Passion (1954) is a rare Western featuring twin sisters, as Yvonne De Carlo plays both Rosa, the murdered mother of rancher Cornell Wilde's son, and Tonya, the sibling who escapes from the grasping landowner trying to kill her and joins Wilde in a battle for justice and peace. There's no such altruism in Paul Henreid's Dead Ringer (1964), because, after being estranged from her twin for 18 years, dowdy Edith Phillips (Bette Davis) murders wealthy Margaret Delorca (Davis) and takes her place, under the noses of cop Jim Hobson (Karl Malden) and secret lover Tony Collins (Peter Lawford).

The narrative is altogether more wholesome in David Swift's The Parent Trap (1961), a Disney adaptation of an Erich Kästner novel that leads to estranged twins Sharon McKendrick and Susan Evers (both Hayley Mills) meeting by chance at summer camp and setting about reuniting their divorced parents, Maggie (Maureen O'Hara) and Mitch (Brian Keith). When Nancy Myers remade The Parent Trap in 1998, Lindsay Lohan doubled up as Hallee Parker and Annie James, as they seek to bring Dennis Quaid and Natasha Richardson back together again.

Lohan had less luck, however, when she essayed twins again in Chris Sivertson's I Know Who Killed Me (2007). In this Golden Raspberry legend (it won in eight of its nine categories), Lohan plays Aubrey Fleming, a pianist and writer from New Salem, and Dakota Moss, a stripper who has no idea why she knows that a complete stranger has been abducted by a serial killer. The clues about a pair of twins are also buried pretty deep in Paul Feig's A Simple Favour (2018), as widowed mommy vlogger Anna Kendrick delves into the disturbing past of new best friend Blake Lively after she disappears and her body washes up at a summer camp lake.

When 17th-century Styrian siblings Maria (Mary Collinson) and Frieda Gellhorn (Madeleine Collinson) rebel against the guardianship of their Puritan uncle, Gustav Weil (Peter Cushing), Frieda starts flirting with the local bigwig, Count Karnstein (Damien Thomas) in John Hough's Twins of Evil (1971). Trish Everly has tried to forget the torment she suffered at the hands of twin Alison Biggers in Ovidio G. Assonitis's Madhouse (1981). But when the latter escapes from hospital while suffering from a disfiguring illness, Biggers vows to give her sibling a birthday surprise to remember.

A still from Madhouse (1981)
A still from Madhouse (1981)
Daphne Zuniga has been plagued by a nightmare of being buried alive since childhood in Larry Stewart's The Initiation (1984) and her fears come bubbling to the surface when she has to spend a night in her father's department store for her college initiation. Determined to find the identical twin who went missing in the Aokigahara Forest, at the foot of Mount Fuji, Natalie Dormer is similarly coerced into confronting her fears in Jason Zada's The Forest (2016), having ignored advice not to stray from the path.

Ballet teacher Delphine (Catherine Deneuve) and aspiring composer Solange (François Dorléac) find themselves on a romantic merry-go-round when a funfair comes to their southern port home in Jacques Demy's The Young Girls of Rochefort (1967), which features a cameo by Gene Kelly. The action turns on a chance meeting in a New York hotel in Jim Abraham's Big Business (1988), as 42 years after two sets of identical twins get muddled, Sadie (Bette Midler) and Rose Shelton (Lily Tomlin) are confronted with an identically named pair in the middle of a small-town factory's bid to avoid being bullied by a corporate giant. Three pairs of actresses play separated German twins Lotte and Anna in Ben Sombogaart's Twin Sisters (2002), who are raised in very different circumstances that threaten to keep them apart when cruel truths are revealed at the end of the Second World War. A case of mistaken identity underpins the action in Jenée LaMarque's The Pretty One (2013), as traumatised wallflower Laurel (Zoe Kazan) begins to blossom after her vivacious twin Audrey is killed in the car crash that she miraculously survives.

A still from Twin Sisters (2002)
A still from Twin Sisters (2002)

Cutesing things up a bit, Roberts Gannaway and Peggy Holmes's Tinker Bell and the Secret of the Wings (2012) is a Disney concoction that has Tinker Bell venture into Winter Woods, where she discovers she has a twin named Periwinkle. They get along splendidly, but have to join forces to save Pixie Hollow. All so neat and simple. But it would take far too long to explain how twin sisters fit into Vaughn Stein's Terminal (2018), a twisting neo-noir set in a railway station. Trust us. They're in there somewhere, only you'll need to rent the film to find out where.

Sisterly Love

Echoing the 'caring, sharing' sentiments of the aforementioned Haynes song, this section centres on sisters who strive to protect each other from the vicissitudes of an often uncaring world. This proves easier said than done, however, in the case of Lucille (Harriet Harper) in Christopher Miles's adaptation of D.H. Lawrence's The Virgin and the Gypsy (1970), as she is unable to stop Yvette (Joanna Shimkus) from falling for a handsome Gypsy (Franco Nero) after they return from their French finishing school to their gloomy Midlands rectory, where their father (Maurice Denham), curtails their freedom.

Passion also makes it difficult for schoolteacher Muriel (Stacey Tendeter) and sculptress Anne (Kika Markham) to safeguard each other after they are mutually intrigued by Claude Roc (Jean-Pierre Léaud) over two decades following a holiday meeting in Wales in François Truffaut's Anne and Muriel (aka Two English Girls, 1971), which was based on a novel by Henri-Pierre Roche, whose writing had also inspired Truffaut's Jules et Jim (1961).

Paris in the 1930s also provides the setting for Nancy Meckler's Sister My Sister (1994), an adaptation of a Wendy Kesselman play that charts the shifting emotions, as sisters Christine (Joely Richardson) and Lea Papin (Jodhi May) find work as maids with Madame Danzard (Julie Walters) and her daughter, Isabelle (Sophie Thursfield). Life is not much more fun for Kiki Harrison (Julia Roberts), as the personal assistant of her movie star sister Gwen (Catherine Zeta-Jones) in Joe Roth's America's Sweethearts (2001).

In her mind, 66 year-old Pauline (Dora van der Groen) is still a child in Lieven Debrauwer's Pauline and Paulette (2001). So, when guardian sister Martha (Julienne De Bruyn) dies, siblings Paulette (Ann Petersen) and Cécile (Rosemarie Bergmans) have to decide who takes care of Pauline, with the family inheritance at stake. The ownership of a potentially valuable painting by Georges de la Tour complicates the fraying relations in James Ivory's Le Divorce (2003), a Ruth Prawer Jhabvala reworking of a Diane Johnson novel that sees Kate Hudson arrive in Paris, just as pregnant sister Naomi Watts discovers that husband Melvil Poupaud is having an affair.

The new arrival in Dean DeBlois and Chris Sanders's Lilo & Stitch (2002) is an experimental dog from another planet. But the core of this Hawaii-set Disney animation revolves around sisters Nani (Tia Carrere) and Lilo (Daveigh Chase), who are trying to get over the loss of their parents. Coming to terms with a new reality also impacts upon Ava and Tanzie Marchetta (Hilary and Haylie Duff) in Martha Coolidge's Material Girls (2006), as they have to park the party lifestyle when a scandal threatens the future of their family cosmetics company.

A still from Material Girls (2006)
A still from Material Girls (2006)

In Judd Apatow's Knocked Up (2007), aspiring reporter Alison Scott (Katherine Heigl) lives with sister Debbie (Leslie Mann) and her husband, Pete (Paul Rudd). But she is so unimpressed by their marriage that she refuses Ben Stone (Seth Rogen) when he offers to stand by her after she gets pregnant following a one-night stand. And Heigl finds herself in another pickle in Anne Fletcher's 27 Dresses (2008), as Jane Nichols (Heigl) has been a bridesmaid 27 times and doesn't relish the prospect of doing it again for sister Tess (Malin Åkerman), as her intended is Jane's boss and ideal man, George (Ed Burns).

The books of Beverly Cleary provide the inspiration for Elizabeth Allen's Ramona and Beezus (2010), which explores how Beatrice Quimby (Selena Gomez) copes with the misadventures of her free-spirited younger sister, Ramona (Joey King). Iris (Emily Blunt) hopes to console Jack (Mark Duplass) after his brother dies by inviting him to the family cabin in Lynn Shelton's Your Sister's Sister (2011). By the time he arrives, however, he has slept with her sister, Hannah (Rosemarie DeWitt). Awkward!

In a more sombre vein, emotionally fragile sisters Gillian (Anna Madeley) and Emily (Christine Bottomley) seek to repair their relationship following the death of their mother by going fruit picking in Kent in Frances Lea's Strawberry Fields (2011). Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) puts her own life on the line to protect younger sister Primrose (Willow Shields) by taking her place in the brutal survival game at the heart of Gary Ross's adaptation of Suzanne Collins's bestseller, The Hunger Games (2012).

At the start of Hirokazu Kore-eda's Our Little Sister (2015), Sachi (Haruka Ayase), Yoshino (Masami Nagasawa) and Chika Koda (Kaho) live in Kamakura with their grandparents. When their estranged father dies, however, they decide to extend a warm welcome to their half-sister, Suzu Asano (Suzu Hirose). The same sort of sentiment flows through Tyler Perry's Nobody's Fool (2018), as mother Lola (Whoopi Goldberg) insists that Danica (Tika Sumpter) takes care of sister Tanya (Tiffany Haddish) after she's released from prison.

Keeping It in the Family

Few child stars earned more money for their studio than Deanna Durbin, who made her debut in a sister story, Henry Koster's Three Smart Girls (1936). When their widowed father (Charles Winninger) declares his intention to remarry a younger woman (Binnie Barnes), Joan (Nan Grey), Kay (Barbara Read) and Penny Craig (Durbin) set out to expose her as a gold-digger. In the sequel, Koster's Three Smart Girls Grow Up (1938), Penny attempts a little matchmaking of her own when Kay falls for Joan's fiancé. However, the Mr Right she finds for Kay promptly falls for Joan as well.

A still from Three Smart Girls Grow Up (1939)
A still from Three Smart Girls Grow Up (1939)

Durbin would play Penny one last time in Frank Ryan's Hers to Hold (1943), as she finds war work at the aircraft factory where handsome pilot Joseph Cotten is based. In Vincente Minnelli's enchanting Americana musical, Meet Me in St Louis (1944), Rose (Lucille Bremer), Esther (Judy Garland), Agnes (Joan Carroll) and Tootie (Margaret O'Brien) vow to make the best of things when their father (Leon Ames) has to relocate for his job.

The use of colour in this delightful picture couldn't be cosier. But the reds and whites reinforce the sombre nature of Ingmar Bergman's Oscar-winning Cries and Whispers (1972), for while Agnes (Harriet Andersson) is dying of uterine cancer, sisters Maria (Liv Ullmann) and Karin (Ingrid Thulin) are too preoccupied with their own concerns to console her and leave her care to their maid, Anna (Kari Sylwan). By contrast, the Magrith sisters, Babe (Sissy Spacek), Lenny (Diane Keaton) and Meg (Jessica Lange), reunite in Hazelhurst, Mississippi after Babe shoots her abusive husband in Bruce Beresford's adaptation of Beth Henley's Pulitzer Prize-winning play, Crimes of the Heart (1988).

In Woody Allen's Hannah and Her Sisters (1986), Hannah (Mia Farrow) seems to have the perfect life with husband Elliott (Michael Caine). But he's obsessed with her sister, Lee (Barbara Hershey), who is involved with tempestuous artist Frederick (Max von Sydow). Meanwhile, Hannah's TV writer ex-husband, Mickey (Allen), grows closer to her other sibling, Holly (Dianne Wiest). Both Wiest and Caine won Oscars for their work, as did Allen for his screenplay. But this fine film never had the popular cachet of Donald Petrie's Mystic Pizza (1988), in which Portuguese American siblings Daisy (Julia Roberts) and Kat Araújo (Annabeth Gish) get summer jobs with best friend Jo-Jo Barbosa (Lili Taylor) at the pizzeria in their small Connecticut town. However, all three will experience heartache before TV food critic 'The Fireside Gourmet' pays a surprise call.

A still from Mystic Pizza (1988)
A still from Mystic Pizza (1988)

The opening of Timothy Spall's eaterie provides the backdrop to Mike Leigh's Life Is Sweet (1990), in which tomboy Claire Skinner dreams of becoming a plumber, while anorexic sister Jane Horrocks drives parents Jim Broadbent and Alison Steadman to distraction, especially after she starts dating slacker David Thewlis. Their problems amount to a hill of beans compared to those being dissected in Todd Solondz's Happiness (1998), however. Three more sisters discover the cracks in the veneer of their domestic bliss, as bestselling author Lara Flynn Boyle can't enjoy her success because of an unworthiness complex, immigrant educator Jane Adams keeps searching for love in all the wrong places, and housewife Cynthia Stevenson learns that husband Dylan Baker is a paedophile. To add insult to injury, parents Ben Gazzara and Louise Lasser announce that they are going to divorce after 40 years of marriage.

The children also suffer for the sins of a parent in Gillies Mackinnon's Hideous Kinky (1998), an adaptation of Esther Freud's semi-autobiographical novel that accompanies eight year-old Bea (Bella Riza) and her younger sister, Lucy (Carrie Mullan), to Marrakech with their 25 year-old single mother, Julia (Kate Winslet). Her laissez-faire attitude contrasts with the strict regime imposed by Grosse Point, Michigan couple Ronald (James Woods) and Sara Lisbon (Kathleen Turner) in Sofia Coppola's The Virgin Suicides (1999), a take on the Jeffrey Eugenides novel that sees sisters Lux (Kirsten Dunst), Mary (A.J. Cook), Cecilia (Hanna R. Hall), Therese (Leslie Hayman) and Bonnie (Chelse Swain) find an extreme way to defy their parents.

Walter Matthau takes his final bow in Diane Keaton's Hanging Up (2000), as Lou Mozzell, the crotchety father of magazine editor Georgia (Keaton), party planner Eve (Meg Ryan) and soap actress Maddy (Lisa Kudrow), who are forever phoning each other to find quick fixes to their problems. Along similar lines, overprotective mother Daphne Wilder (Diane Keaton) can't stop herself from interfering in the lives of her daughters, Maggie (Lauren Graham), Mae (Piper Perabo) and Millie (Mandy Moore), in Michael Lehmann's Because I Said So (2007).

In Gina Prince-Blythewood's take on Sue Monk Kidd's novel, The Secret Life of Bees (2008), housekeeper Rosaleen (Jennifer Hudson) accompanies Lily Owens (Dakota Fanning) when she runs away from her cruel father, T. Ray (Paul Bettany), in 1964 South Carolina and seeks sanctuary with the bee-keeping Boatwright sisters, August (Queen Latifah), June (Alicia Keys) and May (Sophie Okonedo). A faint echo of Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility can be heard in another relocation story, Angel Gracia's comedy, From Prada to Nada (2011), which sees good time sisters Camilla Belle and Alex Vega move in with aunt Adriana Barraza in a rough part of East Los Angeles after their father goes bust.

A still from From Prada to Nada (2011)
A still from From Prada to Nada (2011)

When Hannah Arterton joins Annabel Scholey for a holiday in Puglia in Max Giwa and Dania Pasquini's Walking on Sunshine (2014), she is dismayed to learn that her sister's new fiancé is none other than her old flame, Giulio Berruti. Harsher realities face the five Turkish sisters in Deniz Gamze Ergüven's Oscar-nominated Mustang (2015), however, when rumours start spreading about their flirtatious behaviour and they are confined to the home of their conservative uncle, who vows to marry them all off to protect the family name.

Feuds and Estrangements

It will not come as a surprise to learn that the name of Bette Davis crops up frequently in this section. Having been duped by con artist Humphrey Bogart in Hobart Henley's Bad Sister (1931), socialite Sidney Fox tries to patch things up with jilted fiancé Conrad Nagel, only to discover that he only has eyes for her sibling, Bette Davis. A decade later, Davis plays happy families by her own rules again when she ditches attorney George Brent to run off with sister Olivia De Havilland's husband, Dennis Morgan, in John Huston's In This Our Life (1942).

De Havilland would get her own back as Davis's cousin in Robert Aldrich's Hush...Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964), which was made on the back of the success the director had enjoyed with What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962), which sees tensions boil over between sibling child stars Blanche (Joan Crawford) and Baby Jane Hudson (Bette Davis), after an unexplained car accident has left Blanche in a wheelchair and at the mercy of her unforgiving carer.

There's more artistic rivalry in Anand Tucker's Hilary and Jackie (1998), a biopic that charts the often stormy relationship in 1960s London between cellist Jacqueline de Pré (Emily Watson) and her flautist sister, Hilary (Rachel Griffiths), as the latter has to try and forgive her sibling's fixation with her husband, Kiffer Finzi (David Morrissey), after she is diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. More vaguely rooted in fact is Penny Marshall's A League of Their Own (1992), which sees ace women's baseball player Dottie Hinson (Geena Davis) go along to the tryouts to keep sister Kit (Lori Petty) happy, only for Kit to become jealous of Dottie's success with the Rocford Peaches and be shipped out to the Racine Belles.

Speaking of fact, there have been two versions of Philippa Gregory's novel, The Other Boleyn Girl. Natascha McElhone and Jodhi May play Mary and Anne alongside Jared Harris's Henry VIII in Philippa Lowthorpe's 2003 BBC adaptation, while the roles passed to Scarlett Johansson, Natalie Portman and Eric Bana in Justin Chadwick's 2008 Hollywood retelling. While in Tudor times, we should pause to mention the screen interactions of Henry's daughters, Mary and Elizabeth. They were respectively played by Daphne Slater and Glenda Jackson in the BBC's Elizabeth R (1971); Kathy Burke and Cate Blanchett in Shekhar Kapur's Elizabeth (1998); and by Joanne Walley and Anne-Marie Duff in another BBC miniseries, The Virgin Queen (2005).

The temperature rises between lawyer Teri (Vanessa Williams) and her younger sisters - mother-to-be Maxine (Vivica A. Fox) and beautician Bird (Nia Long) - when their Chicago-based mother Josephine Joseph) (Irma P. Hall) lapses into a coma in George Tillman, Jr.'s Soul Food (1997). With Kate Fitzgerald (Sofia Vassilieva) suffering from acute promyelocytic leukaemia in Nick Cassavetes's adaptation of Jodi Picault novel, My Sister's Keeper (2009), the doctors suggest that firefighter Brian (Jason Patric) and wife Sara (Cameron Diaz) use designer in vitro fertilisation to produce a 'saviour sister'. But, as she gets older, Anna (Abigail Breslin), comes to resent feeling like a source of spare parts.

Hard-living men's magazine writer Amy Townsend (Amy Schumer) falls out with sister Kim (Brie Larsen) over the care of their ageing father in Judd Apatow's romcom, Trainwreck. Meanwhile, recently divorced nurse Maura Ellis (Amy Poehler) is reluctant to return to her soon-to-be-sold family home in Orlando, Florida in Jason Moore's Sisters (both 2015), because parents Bucky (James Brolin) and Deanna (Diane Wiest) have also summoned estranged sibling Kate (Tina Fey) to clear out her room.

A still from Sisters (2015) With Amy Poehler And Tina Fey
A still from Sisters (2015) With Amy Poehler And Tina Fey
Absence makes the heart grow fonder, as Scott McPherson adapts his own play in Jerry Zaks's Marvin's Room (1996), which sees Diane Keaton end a prolonged silence after she is diagnosed with leukaemia and needs sister Meryl Streep to return to their childhood home in Florida to see if she or son Leonardo DiCaprio would be a suitable bone marrow donor. Elizabeth Perkins always resented the attention that sister Kathy Bates received when they were kids, but comes to accept her and her schizoeffective disorder when they are reunited as adults in Ron Lagomarsino's My Sister's Keeper (2002).

Curtis Hanson's adaptation of Jennifer Weiner's novel, In Her Shoes (2005) sees great-grandmother Ella Hirsch (Shirley MacLaine) attempt to improve relations between straight arrow lawyer Rose (Toni Collette) and her free-spirited dyslexic sister, Maggie (Cameron Diaz). As a mysterious planet hurtles towards Earth amidst family tensions in Lars von Trier's Melancholia (2011), Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) strives to ensure that sister Justine (Kirsten Dunst) enjoys her wedding day with Michael (Alexander Skarsgård) before the lights go out.

Princess Anna goes in search of her estranged sister Elsa in the hope of ending the permanent winter that has befallen Arendelle in Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee's Frozen (2012). But the siblings are on much better terms in Kevin Deters and Stevie Wermers's Olaf's Frozen Adventure (2017), which sends their snowman friend in search of some Christmas traditions to brighten the festive season at court.

When Manhattan socialite Cate Blanchett falls on hard times after suffering a nervous breakdown in Woody Allen's Blue Jasmine (2013), she seeks refuge in San Francisco with down-to-earth sister Sally Hawkins. Following Diane Keaton in Annie Hall (1977), Blanchett took the Oscar for Best Actress. But Hawkins proved unable to follow Dianne Wiest for Hannah and Her Sisters and Bullets Over Broadway (1994), Mira Sorvino in Mighty Aphrodite (1995) and Penélope Cruz in Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008) and lost out in the Best Supporting stakes to Lupita Nyong'o for Steve McQueen's 12 Years a Slave.

John Corbett hopes daughter Sophie Nélisse and new stepsister Corinne Foxx will bond during a boating trip to see some great white sharks in Johannes Roberts's 47 Meters Down: Uncaged (2019). But things don't quite go according to plan, while in Tate Taylor's Ava (2020), assassin Ava Faulkner (Jessica Chastain) takes time out from her murderous schedule to make a stopover in Boston to visit her ailing mother, Bobbi (Geena Davis), and her sister Judy (Jess Weixler), whom she hasn't seen in eight years and who is now dating Ava's ex-fiancé, Michael (Common).

A Bit of This, A Bit of That

This is a rattlebag of a segment, so let's start with some witches. The falling house that killed the Wicked Witch of the East prompts her sister, the Wicked Witch of the West (Margaret Hamilton), to wreak revenge upon Dorothy Gale (Judy Garland) and her companions in Victor Fleming's Technicolor take on L. Frank Baum's The Wizard of Oz (1939). On a saucier note, sisters Christine (Ann Michelle) and Betty (Vicky Michelle) arrive in London to become models in Ray Austin's The Virgin Witch (1971), only to be lured into a coven of white wizards by unscrupulous fashion agent, Sybil Waite (Patricia Haines).

Shortly after relocating to Salem, Massachusetts, chaos ensues in Kenny Ortega's Hocus Pocus (1993), when teenager Max Dennison (Omri Katz) accidentally resurrects 17th-century witchy sisters, Winifred (Bette Midler), Sarah (Sarah Jessica Parker) and Mary Sanderson (Kathy Najimy). There are more smiles and spells on offer in Griffin Dunne's Practical Magic (1998). Adapted from Alice Hoffman's bestseller, this comedy sees sisters Nicole Kidman and Sandra Bullock risk the ire of witch aunts Dianne Wiest and Stockard Channing by seeking to break the curse that dooms the Owens family women to being unlucky in love.

A still from Hocus Pocus (1993)
A still from Hocus Pocus (1993)

Leaving pointed hats and warts to one side, we venture into the murky world of Brian De Palma's Sisters (1972), in which reporter Grace Collier tries to convince the cops that a murder has taken place in the neighbouring apartment occupied by French-Canadian model Danielle Breton and her once-conjoined twin, Dominique (Margot Kidder). When Chloë Sevigny took over the role of Grace in Douglas Buck's Sisters (2006), the dual role of Angelique and Annabel fell to Lou Doillon.

Launching a trilogy, John Fawcett's Ginger Snaps (2000) takes a turn for the unnerving when Ginger Fitzgerald (Katharine Isabelle) is bitten by a rabid beast and her sister, Brigitte (Emily Perkins), tries to concoct a monkshood potion that will prevent her from becoming a she-wolf. In Brett Sullivan's sequel, Ginger Snaps Unleashed, Brigitte is infected with her sibling's blood and becomes desperate to escape the asylum in which she's being incarcerated in order to fight her increasingly powerful instincts. However, we hark back to the Canada of 1815 for Grant Harvey's Ginger Snaps Back: The Beginning (both 2004), as sisters Ginger and Brigitte Fitzgerald (Isabelle and Perkins again) seek sanctuary with a Cree tribe after becoming separated from a trading party bound for Hudson's Bay.

One of the spookiest films you will ever see, Kim Jee-woon's A Tale of Two Sisters (2003) sees teenager Su-mi (Im Soo-jung) released from an institution and take it upon herself to protect younger sister, Su-yeon (Moon Geun-young), when they move in with their father (Kim Kap-soo) and new stepmother, Eun-joo (Yum Jung-ah). Feeling fragile, Victoria (Shannyn Sossamon) accepts an invitation from her sister, Caroline (Pink), to visit her in Paris. But she soon comes to regret attending an illegal rave in the underground burial tunnels that hold the remains of seven million bodies in Tomm Coker and David Elliott's Catacombs (2007).

Lightening the mood, seemingly harmless sisters Josephine Hull and Jean Adair shock nephew Cary Grant when they tell him what they do with their homemade elderberry wine in Frank Capra's Arsenic and Old Lace (1944). If you weren't a gentleman of advancing year, you might fancy your chances with this dotty duo. But you wouldn't want to stray into the creepy Los Angeles mansion in Karen Arthur's Don't Ring the Doorbell (aka The Mafu Cage, 1978), as this disturbing saga centres on the relationship between astronomer Ellen Carpenter (Lee Grant) and her childlike younger sister, Cissy (Carol Kane), who can't be trusted to look after her pet monkeys.

It's a friendly woodland spirit that sisters Satsuki and Mei (voiced in the English version by Dakota and Elle Fanning) meet in Hayao Miyazaki's My Neighbour Totoro (1988), a Studio Ghibli masterpiece set in 1950s Japan, which follows the girls and their father to an old house in order to be closer to the hospital where their mother is receiving treatment. Siblings Lillian Gish and Bette Davis cease to feel their age in Lindsay Anderson's The Whales of August (1987), when Russian charmer Vincent Price turns up at the Maine cottage where they have spent their late-life summers.

While treating Uma Thurman for her obsessive-compulsive disorder, San Francisco psychiatrist Richard Gere becomes fixated on her sister, Kim Basinger, who happens to be married to jealous gangster, Eric Roberts, in Phil Joanou's Final Analysis (1992). And staying with psychological distress, Los Angeles lawyer Tilda Swinton can't achieve sexual satisfaction in Susan Streitfeld's Female Perversions (1996), while sister Amy Madigan repeatedly succumbs to kleptomania until the pair finally confront the baleful influence upon them of their parents.

A Jennifer Egan book provides the basis for Jordana Brewster's trip to Europe in Adam Brooks's The Invisible Circus (1999), as she seeks to discover how older sister Cameron Diaz wound up dead in 1970 at the foot of a Portuguese precipice. Another body is found on a Cornish beach in 1936 in Charles Dance's Ladies in Lavender (2004). But Andrea Marowski (Daniel Brühl) is still alive and sisters Ursula (Judi Dench) and Janet Widdington (Maggie Smith) become increasingly attached to the castaway after they nurse him back to health and discover that he is talented Polish violinist.

A still from Ladies in Lavender (2004)
A still from Ladies in Lavender (2004)

As doctors believe that Amanda Seyfried's encounter with a serial killer took place in her fevered imagination, the police are reluctant to believe that the same predator has now abducted her sister, Emily Wickersham, in Heitor Dhalia's Gone (2012). But there's no doubting the motives of Sandra (Abigail Breslin) and Beth (Georgie Henley) Sanderson in Stanley M. Brooks's true-life saga, Deadly Sisters (aka Perfect Sisters, 2014), as the high-schoolers plot to murder their abusive alcoholic mother, Linda (Mira Sorvino) without anyone being any the wiser.

Uncover landmark films on demand
Browse our collection at Cinema Paradiso
Subscription starts from £15.99 a month.