Sunday 17 February 2019

1,001 Films: "Children of a Lesser God" (1986)

Children of a Lesser God is a film with its own inbuilt subtitle track, and a real, quality throwback: practically the only elements tying Randa Haines' drama to the 1980s are some period-specific dancing to Pointer Sisters tunes, and the fact we learn the sign language for "Terminator". Idealistic teacher James Leeds (William Hurt) arrives at a new school to apply his new-fangled methods - such as, gosh, music and swearing - to hard-of-hearing pupils. While helping his students find their voice, his attentions are drawn towards Sarah (Marlee Matlin), one of the brightest students the school's ever had, now languishing in her day job as janitor; she's profoundly deaf, and in most other senses, hard to get. As these two protagonists start to communicate in the language of love, some part of the film can't help but register as profoundly corny. The school appears to be cut off from the rest of the world on some grandly melodramatic Isle of the Soundless, while casting Piper Laurie as Sarah's mother feels like an unfortunate Carrie nod: you might well wonder what Sarah endured on prom night. Yet the second half subjects James and Sarah's relationship to a surprisingly tough examination, and even before then, it's evident that this cleverly scripted and performed weepie delivers an entirely different (more complete?) experience for those viewers with some knowledge of sign language. The key info signed by Sarah has to be released to non-signing viewers in other ways, chiefly by having Hurt translate, but also through Matlin's expressions and body language; it's a rare American movie where eyes and hands are as eloquent, and as graceful, as lips and tongues. 

If anything, the first half is hamstrung by its need to prove deaf people equivalent, to show that the deaf can be as smart, stubborn, foul-mouthed, loving or annoying (Hurt's class, especially so) as anybody else. Still, it seems fair that Sarah should be defined less by her deafness than by her treatment as a girl: in this light, her late-night skinnydipping isn't an attempt to immerse herself in silence (why would she need to?), but to wash away the sins of others in her past. What really hurt her wasn't those who lined up to take advantage of a girl who couldn't say no, but the fact no-one bothered to learn her language. That's the thing about relationships the film skewers: they cut both ways. It's a measure of Children's success that it might, in theory, still work as a relationship drama if every line were spoken out loud by protagonists with pitch-perfect hearing. The real difference between James and Sarah isn't how they hear, but the way in which they communicate: he in a constant babble, looking away from the intended recipient of his wisdom, carelessly throwing words away; she altogether more considered, from a place deep within her. The suggestion is, for all their flaws and whatever their afflictions, these might just be Everyman and Everywoman. Despite the actor's very best efforts, the plot insists Hurt - as a representative of the hearing world - is repeatedly made to look a fool, as though to cancel out his handsomeness and obvious suitability for Sarah's heart; it doesn't help that at least fifty percent of his dialogue is somebody else's. The same, however, never applies to Matlin, allowed to be wilful and even haughty without losing our sympathies. She didn't win the Oscar for playing disability; she won the Oscar for giving one of the most complex and expressive performances of that year, if not the decade.

Children of a Lesser God is available on DVD through Paramount.

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