Children of a Lesser God

February 15, 2012

Children of a Lesser God, the new film adapted from Mark Medoff’s Tony award-winning play, is vulnerable to criticism. There are a few moribund scenes that never spark. Structurally, the film seems lopsided, going on too long, and it appears to grope for a satisfactory ending.

And the solution to a key problem—one of the main characters does not speak, and her lines must be spoken by the other actors—does not quite ring true.

These are some of the movie’s problems. I mention them early, so I can get on with praising the film, because, for all its flaws, it contains scenes that are as stirring as anything I’ve seen on a movie screen this year.

Children of a Lesser God—the title is an evocative quote of Tennyson—begins with a teacher (William Hurt) arriving at a school for the deaf. (He has full hearing.) His unorthodox methods (he gets the kids’ attention by falling off his chair and standing on his head) don’t win him any friends among the faculty, but the children are clearly excited.

His big job is getting the youngsters to talk. These deaf children know they sound strange when they try to speak, and so they rely on their sign language, which Hurt believes will keep them in a social ghetto.

He runs into the same problem with a former student (Marlee Matlin) who now works at the school as a janitor. She’s completely deaf and fiercely anti-social, wanting merely to do her work and get through life, and she will not speak because she does not want to be embarrassed. She views with contempt Hurt’s efforts to get her to speak, assuming he is motivated by pity.

Before long he is motivated by something else entirely. They go on a date and she wants to dance. She can’t hear the music, but when she is on the dance floor, she moves to some sort of internal music, swaying alone, her eyes closed, moving with sensual grace. Hurt stands to one side, watching, dumfounded. He is falling in love.

With good reason; this intensely erotic scene introduces us to the depth of Matlin’s character. And she is the mainspring for the exploration of the developing relationship, which is unshirking and mostly free of cliché. You know how such a film would end if it were a TV movie: the “Miracle Worker” solution, where the principals tug and tussle and then the deaf woman speaks at the end. Embrace; fade to black.

Well, that’s not the way Children of a Lesser God plays it, and much credit to director Randa Haines (who, in fact, comes from television: “Hill Street Blues” and the TV movie Something about Amelia). Haines can also take credit for the exceptional level of acting, which carries the script over its rougher moments.

Most of the principals are hearing-impaired actors, making their first film appearances. Without exception, they are excellent. Much of the film’s dialogue is signed as well as spoken, and by the end of the film signing seems natural.

Hurt is one of our most important actors, and if he sometimes seems to be searching for his character during the film, he nevertheless contributes a powerful presence. Perhaps only Hurt would tackle the scene in which he tries to “show” Matlin a Bach concerto by interpreting it through movement.

But fine as Hurt is, he cannot match the incandescence of Marlee Matlin, a hearing-impaired actress for whom this is the first major role of any kind. The beauty of her performance has only slightly to do with her undeniable prettiness. This is the sort of performance where the actor communicates what can only be called a beauty of soul.

If there is any suspicion that these critical hosannas are unduly inflated by the actress’s triumph over her disability, I can only tell you to see the film. Matlin’s silent performance is one of the eloquent I have seen in years.

First published in the Herald, October 1986

Matlin won the Oscar for best actress, a choice with which I obviously concur. I’ve never seen it again, but obviously it caught me at the right moment. Hurt’s vagueness turned out to be a sign of things to come, even though he can still nail a role. Randa Haines does not have many credits since, although I have a soft spot for Wrestling Ernest Hemingway, a movie with a powerful sense of place (Florida) and two large turns by Robert Duvall and Richard Harris.