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'Children of a Lesser God'

By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
October 03, 1986

 


Director:
Randa Haines
Cast:
William Hurt;
Marlee Matlin;
Piper Laurie;
Philip Bosco
R
Under 17 restricted
Oscars:
Best Actress


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YOU CAN hear the silence, the palpable quiet in director Randa Haines' skillful adaptation of stage's "Children of a Lesser God." The polemic drama of deaf rights translates into a heart-pounding love story

-- the most passionately performed since "Officer and a Gentleman."

"Lesser God" is an affair of cross-cultural complexity that teams talent-search winner Marlee Matlin, a hearing-impaired actress, with the accomplished and appealing William Hurt. Matlin, as his deaf lover Sarah, utters just one lonely, painful cry -- she otherwise signs her part with such vigor that she puts mimes to shame. Hurt's translation sometimes seems a redundant echo, but Hurt handles this necessary evil unobtrusively.

Matlin has a face made for nuance and a body that moves like an ocean in a bottle. And Hurt is the ideal actor: secure enough in his machismo to play an impotent male or even a "Spider Woman," and now happily somewhere between "The Big Chill" and "Body Heat." "Lesser God's" romance (unlike "Body Heat") has a lyrical purity. Set in Maine, it has the picture-perfect appeal of a crisp New England afternoon, and the warmth of an old cable-knit pullover.

Hurt plays James, an unorthodox teacher at a school for the deaf. And Matlin is Sarah, one of the school's brightest graduates who has chosen to work at the school as a custodian. A natural do-gooder, James tries to break through her wall of silence. The angry young woman turns him away with her sarcasm, but relents after his persistent courtship.

Hurt and Matlin make passionate partners as they contend with the burning drive of their initial attraction and the chaos of miscommunication that inevitably follows. Lesser actors would have made mush of this pretty storyline; these two make it into parable.

If "Lesser God" errs, it's because it's too glossy. But director Haines, who won an Emmy for "Something About Amelia," successfully explores the qualities of sound and silence, conveying the din and the babble along with the Bach, then contrasting the ocean of motion that suffices for sound among the deaf with the contemplative calm of soundlessness.

Billed as a metaphor for miscommunication, the film disappoints. It is no deeper than a paperback romance. The script, cowritten by the play's author Mark Medoff, is quite different from its Tony Award-winning predecessor, but different isn't worse. It gets its zest from the teacher's relationship with the hearing-impaired students -- a lovable bunch of teens who learn to speak via James' novel technique.

It's doubly uplifting when you realize that the young actors, some of them amateurs, are themselves hearing impaired. Allison Gompf is particularly fine in the supporting part as Lydia, who becomes the lead singer in a group called the No-Tones, with Philip Bosco as the crusty school superintendent and Piper Laurie as Sarah's repentant mother.

Sweet themes and sure performances aside, "Children of a Lesser God" is simply a movie that feels good. -- Rita Kempley. CHILDREN OF A LESSER GOD (R) -- At area theaters.

   
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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