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‘Children of a Lesser God’

By Paul Attanasio
Washington Post Staff Writer
October 03, 1986


Randa Haines
William Hurt;
Marlee Matlin;
Piper Laurie;
Philip Bosco
Under 17 restricted
Best Actress

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The trick of telling a love story is deceptively simple: You find a core of romantic energy so strong that nothing -- not the events of the story or the circumstances of the characters -- intrudes. And that's what "Children of a Lesser God" does. This is romance the way Hollywood used to make it, with both conflict and tenderness, at times capturing the texture of the day-to-day, at times finding the lyrical moments when two lovers find that time stops.

And almost incidentally, one of the lovers is deaf. James Leeds (William Hurt) plays a teacher of the deaf who, bouncing from job to job after a stint in the Peace Corps, finds himself at a school that Sarah (Marlee Matlin) used to attend. One of the school's brightest graduates, she's now a janitor there, mopping floors and cleaning toilets. She's a sensuous beauty, but what really captivates Leeds is her spitfire spirit, her stubborn refusal to learn how to speak.

Leeds is an ex-hippie, something of a goofball, and Hurt builds into the character a series of raggedy, cartoonish effects that anchor the movie's humor. He's a post-Watergate Mr. Chips, and in his playful relationship with his students (all of whom are actually deaf), as they play games or learn silly songs, first-time director Randa Haines finds a way to lighten the movie's tone, to give the audience a release.

But there's something subtler in Hurt's performance, something that shows how Leeds' certitude about the good he's doing masks a gnawing uncertainty. He's a seeker, and he knows deep down that he still hasn't found what he's looking for. Till, of course, he meets Sarah, who impresses on him that teaching the deaf to speak (instead of to communicate through hand signs) is a form of aggression and control, a way to drag the deaf into the world of the hearing.

Which leads to some haunting scenes in the school's pool. Once underwater, Leeds is on Sarah's turf, a blue and quiet world -- that's where the real connection is made, where Leeds jumps out of himself and sees the world the way Sarah sees it (which is, after all, what love is all about). The scenes are artfully photographed by cinematographer John Seale ("Witness"), in color that is rich without ostentation, with a delicate, painterly light. Light is the lovers' common ground, and Seale and Haines find creative ways (particularly in a climactic tussle between the two) of using light as a dramatic element in the story.

"Children of a Lesser God" is a model of how to adapt a play for the screen. Author Mark Medoff won a Tony for an abstract work that had little set decoration and much narration, and wove in and out of Leeds' mind; and the play had an impersonal quality -- it was mostly about deaf politics. Haines and screenwriter Hesper Anderson open the drama up to include the school's scenic waterfront setting and life in the adjoining town, but more importantly, they jettison the theorizing, boiling it down to the conflict between Leeds and Sarah. Those aspects of "Children of a Lesser God" that made it more a tract than a play are gone; it becomes a story about two people whose failure to communicate is simply more dramatic, but really no different, than everyone else's.

That makes the movie intimate where the play wasn't. The choice of actors (and nonactors) who are actually deaf makes it more intimate still, particularly the casting of Matlin. She's had little acting experience, but you couldn't tell from "Children of a Lesser God" -- like Debra Winger, she's a natural, and she even has a physical resemblance to Winger, the same flash and depth in her eyes. The most obvious challenge of the role is to communicate without speaking, but Matlin rises to it in the same way the stars of the silent era did -- she acts with her eyes, her gestures. And from their first scene together, she and Hurt work up the kind of sexual heat that hasn't been seen onscreen since "Witness."

At more than two hours, "Children of a Lesser God" is too long, and it could do without Philip Bosco's grand theatrical aplomb (in the role of Leeds' boss). And it's a shame that Haines couldn't find some way around the convention of having Hurt translate nearly everything Matlin says in sign language -- it's an artifice in an otherwise lifelike story.

But in her first feature, Haines demonstrates a remarkable mastery of tone, of modulating "Children of a Lesser God" through its moments of humor and tension, passion and discovery. To appreciate "Children of a Lesser God," you only have to imagine how it could have patronized the deaf by celebrating their pluck, or become a heartwarming tale of little people who solve their big problems. That's exactly what it isn't, and that's quite an achievement.

"Children of a Lesser God" is rated R and contains profanity and sexual themes.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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