1986 / Best Actor / Best Actress / Best Picture / Best Supporting Actress

Film #319: Children of a Lesser God (1986)

We continue our William Hurt retrospective with another film that focuses on an unusual relationship. That film is Children of a Lesser God in which Hurt plays a highly-regarded teacher who arrives at a school for the deaf and attempts to get his small class of pupils to speak.

He does this by trying to connect with them be it getting them to swear or having them dance around and sing. But James’ bigger challenge occurs when he tries to win over Sarah, a former pupil at the school who now works there as a cleaner. James’ early attempts to get Sarah to speak are thwarted and he soon learns that her upbringing has had an effect on her views regarding her speech. Sarah’s mother basically rejected her and she feels happier when she’s signing, which initially creates a frosty relationship between the two. But later, and somewhat inevitably, the pair begin a romance which escalates quite quickly when Sarah moves in with him. Though they have several happy moments together, the issue about her not speaking is always in the background. Conflict quickly arises and eventually the two are arguing constantly, leading Sarah to return to her mother’s house. Though I thought that the film could’ve done with an ambiguous ending Children of a Lesser God finished with the inevitable reconciliation between James and Sarah.

Of the three films in this post, I have to say that Children of a Lesser God was my least favourite. Though it does pose some interesting points about the nature of its key relationship, I found the romantic plot to be overblown and slightly trite. Similarly, James’ attempts to engage his class felt incredibly clichéd and a little generic. In addition, this was the first film from the decade that felt very eighties, down to the fact that one of the final scenes sees the pupils dancing along to ‘Jump’ by The Pointer Sisters. Luckily, the film is bolstered by two fine central performers who try to make their characters rise above the fairly simple nature of the plot. Hurt tries to side step cliché in the ‘inspirational teacher’ role and actually makes James a flawed individual primarily because he doesn’t understand anybody who doesn’t want to speak. One of the scenes that best exemplifies Hurt’s work is when James and Sarah attend a party where everybody is speaking in sign language. Hurt is able to convey how he’s feeling just by a few looks and he allows the audience to feel his pain. Hurt also provides the connection between the sign language spoken on screen and the audience, almost acting as a translator at times. However, despite being incredibly powerful, Hurt is acted off the screen by the then 21-year-old Marlee Matlin. Matlin, who still holds the record for being the youngest ever Best Actress Winner, gives an incredibly expressive turn as the emotionally damaged Sarah. She more than holds her own opposite both Hurt and Piper Laurie, the latter of whom plays her mother in a handful of scenes. Matlin makes us really feel for Sarah and portrays as a fully-rounded character who has both strengths and weaknesses. I did feel that, in the hands of lesser actors, Children of a Lesser God would have been quite an ordinary film but thankfully it was an enjoyable due to the performances from Hurt and the Oscar-winning Matlin.


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