Children of a Lesser God (1986)

“Do you think there’s someplace where we can meet that’s not in silence and not in sound?”

‘Children of a Lesser God’, directed by Randa Haines in 1986, is an American romantic drama set in a school for the deaf in New England. James Leeds, played by William Hurt, is a new and charismatic teacher whose speciality is encouraging and helping deaf students to speak. On his first day at the school he encounters Sarah Norman, played by Marlee Matlin, a former pupil at the school who now works as a janitor. Norman is angry does not understand Leeds’ desire to get his pupils to talk, but when they fall in love with one another, they finds themselves having to learn about each other’s worlds and to find ways to meet in the middle. Based on a true story that became a play, there is a heart to this film, but also a staginess. There are no subtitles, a move that angered some viewers who felt that the sign language used throughout was ‘interpreted’ through the eyes of Hurt’s character, but for me this theatricality worked to focus the attention on the two characters at the centre of the story. The whole film was about communication and throughout, the sign language becomes almost blended into the fabric of the movie, like a form of dancing. I was reminded of the times I occasionally watch Scandinavian television series and forget I don’t speak Swedish. The chemistry between Hurt and Matlin is clear and forms the backbone of the narrative, in particular her performance, almost entirely silent, is brilliant. It’s reminiscent in content to ‘Dead Poets Society’, but doesn’t stray into the dark territory that that later film does.

Would I recommend it? Yes – it’s a heart-warming film, but most importantly it presents an almost unrivalled window into the deaf community and their culture. It’s the only time a deaf performer has won an Academy Award, which is reason enough for it to be on the list. Watch in a double bill with ‘Dead Poets Society’.

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