14 August 2016

Children of a Lesser God (starring William Hurt and Marlee Matlin)

I doubt if I would ever have come across this film, which was made in the mid-1980s, had it not been for the recommendation of a friend. I put it on my wishlist and was given it some time ago; we finally decided to watch it at the weekend and found it mesmerising…

‘Children of a lesser god’ is set in a school for the deaf and hard of hearing in the United States. A new speech teacher, James (William Hurt) has just been appointed. His job is to encourage students, mostly teenagers, to be motivated to use language even though they cannot hear and to find reasons for doing so. His methods are somewhat unorthodox but he quickly becomes popular, at least with the teenagers he is working with.

It doesn’t take him long to notice Sarah (Marlee Matlin), a young woman in her twenties who is working as a cleaner. He learns that she was herself a pupil at the school some years previously, but that despite being highly intelligent she preferred to stay on to work at the school in a menial role rather than venture out elsewhere to study or work. He also discovers that she does not speak or lip-read, and is determined to find out why…

The story is essentially a love story between two very different people but it’s also, for the era, quite a thought-provoking and sensitive look into ways in which society looks askance at those who suffer from a disability. Sarah gradually reveals her rather sordid past, and her fear of failure, or of being considered stupid; James gradually realises that he needs to adjust to those whose needs are not the same as his.

The acting is excellent, the settings believable, the dialogue crisp, and the story moved at just the right pace for our tastes. I was a little surprised that there were no subtitles for some of the very rapid signing, although in most cases a ‘hearing’ person translates; but perhaps that was deliberate, to show a little of how deaf people feel when in the presence of those who are speaking rapidly without looking at them.

Marlee Matlin in particular was brilliant in the role of Sarah, with a very expressive face that communicated as much as words could have done. The actress is herself deaf, and this was her debut film role, for which she won a well-deserved Academy award for Best Actress.

The film is rated R in the United States, for several instances of ‘strong’ language, and implied nudity and intimacies; however it’s rated 15 in the UK and as young as 12 in some other countries. It’s not the kind of story that’s likely to be of interest to anyone under the age of about 14 or 15 anyway, in my view, but is certainly worth watching by anyone wanting to know a little more about attitudes to those with hearing difficulties.

Review by copyright 2016 Sue's DVD Reviews

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