Children of a Lesser GodReviewed By MP Bartley
Posted 11/21/11 07:52:59
In my job, I work quite often with the deaf, and it's not exactly a revelation to say that all they want in life is to be treat the same as people lucky enough to have all their senses in working order. They don't want pity, they don't want to be charity cases and they certainly don't want to be patronised - three lessons Randa Haines needs to learn.James Leeds (William Hurt) is a teacher of the deaf, arriving at a new school with a burning desire to make a difference to the afflicted and new methods with which to do it, including innovative use of dance, music and swear words. Whilst there he notices a deaf woman, Sarah (Marlee Matlin) cleaning the toilets, a menial job she's far too clever to be stuck doing. Struck by her intelligence, her beauty and her fierce attitude to anyone trying to help her, she quickly becomes his new pet project and something more.
Just a couple of weeks ago, I watched Jim Sheridan's My Left Foot a film that also dealt with someone severely afflicted with physical restrictions, yet for the most part avoided sickly sentimentality or treating its protagonists with a patronising slap on the back. It's clearly a job trickier than it looks. Where Children of a Lesser God goes most wrong is in it's treatment of Sarah and the other deaf children at the school. Most are assigned names, but no personalities. They're deaf, they're happy when James teaches them and that's about it. Whether Haines was afraid to fully engage with the problems they face 24/7 (there's no real insight into how frustrating and devastating that type of existence must be) or whether she was more concerned with the story of James and Sarah, the unfortunate result is that the children (you know, of the title) are rendered colourless and amorphous. You should feel something for these kids; their pain, their struggle, their joy at putting on a concert that gets their parents on their feet in rapturous applause, but Haines fumbles it every time. Even the potentially cliched, yet dramatically ripe, storyline of James butting heads with the starchy headteacher of the school, trails off into nothing.
Instead, the film focuses squarely on the story of James and Sarah, and even then it's dramatically inert. Hurt is only ever interesting when given a vivid character with twists and turns to experiment with, he just doesn't have the innate charisma to bring something to such an anodyne and saintly role as James. There's nothing inherently wrong with portraying noble and self-sacrificing characters on screen, but the films have to work damn hard to make those characters interesting, and neither this film nor Hurt's performance does that. An interesting aside when there's a little flare of jealousy within James when he sees Sarah mixing with other deaf adults is as good as it gets, and other than that he becomes an exercise in beige characterisation.
Matlin fares a little better with a more interesting character and (Oscar winning) performance, but she's fatally undercut with perhaps the most patronising stroke of all. Every conversation she has with James is translated for us via him, in short, there's no subtitles for her. This might well be a strategy to make us emphasise with the difficulty of communication, but what it really does is rob Sarah of her individuality and her voice - no pun intended. Matlin's a good actress as anyone who has seen her work in The West Wing will testify; her recurring character of Joey Lucas was a great example in how to write an interesting deaf character - just write them the same as everyone else.
Children of a Lesser God instead does the exact opposite and makes her a charity case - it may not be deliberate, but that's pretty much as insulting as it gets. This disparity achieves nothing but makes the whole relationship ring false from beginning to end.With the sincerity of a daytime soap opera and the emotional depth of a puddle, Haine's film is both forgettable and offensive. Drably directed, it takes a love affair between a deaf woman and a fully-hearing man and somehow makes it about HIS problems.
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