CHILDREN OF A LESSER GOD William Hurt, Marlee Matlin, Piper Laurie, Philip Bosco. Directed by Randa Haines. 1986. R. (Paramount, monaural, 119 min., $79.95; LV disk, $29.95.)
Mark Medoff's Broadway play about the romance between a deaf woman, who chooses not to speak imperfectly, and an innovative teacher, who tries to break through her shell of silence, is the kind of inspirational entertainment that is very much out of favor these days with much of the critical establishment around the country.
But the moviegoing public seems to approve, as did the Motion Picture Academy, which nominated the picture and co-leads Hurt and Matlin for Oscars and awarded one to Matlin.
Actually, "Children of a Lesser God" is far from maudlin or calculatingly sentimental. The philosophical conflict between Matlin's handicapped perfectionist and Hurt's hearing pedagog lifts the drama far above the usual disease-of-the-week shows on TV.
Hurt plays his part with a movie star's charm, which is good in this context because the clinical material needs some leavening of humor and behavioral variety to escape undue solemnity. For her part, Matlin, a deaf actress, projects a fascinating fierceness in defending her soundless turf. It may not sound like much in print, but a series of sequences in which the two lovers confront the problem of Hurt's passion for classical music and Matlin's tragic inability to share it raises profound questions about the boundaries of relationships.
Haines directs this drama with verve and skill, but the script is not always clearly focused, especially in the scenes with Piper Laurie as Matlin's mother, who wavers between caring concern and callous indifference. The very tentative effort to establish Matlin's motivations by peeking into her past is at once half-hearted and obtrusive. And for his part, the Hurt character seems too much the congenital drifter to engage in such an obsessive relationship. There is both too much about the problems of the deaf and not enough.
The movie plays well on video inasmuch as an essentially two-person drama calls for many carefully framed compositions and an intimate scale of photography. All in all, "Children of a Lesser God" is much more subtle than the tearjerking potential its theme would suggest. All concerned are to be commended for their restraint.