Title: The Miracle Worker
Language: English, American Sign Language
Genre: Biography, Drama
Director: Arthur Penn
Writer: William Gibson
Music: Laurence Rosenthal
Cinematography: Ernesto Caparrós
The second feature of Oscar-winning director Arthur Penn (BONNIE AND CLYDE 1967), THE MIRACLE WORKER is a riveting and inspirational true story of the American deaf-blind author and lecturer, Helen Keller (Duke), and her visually impaired governess Anne Sullivan (Bancroft), who painstakingly breaks in the impregnable carapace of the disobedient Helen, and miraculously manages to teaches her how to communicate with the outer world and express her feelings through sign language.
The brunt of the film’s infectious potency derives from the high-octane delivery of the two leads, Duke and Bancroft reprise their roles from their award-wining Broadway play to this brilliant Black-and-White movie adaptation, against the disadvantage that both were nearly a decade older than their respective characters’ real ages when the story took place, especially for Duke (who has just passed away this year at the age of 69, R.I.P.), on her cusp of adolescence, she was born in 1946, to portray a 7-year old child is too much a stretch for her, fortunately, the role is in the main a Herculean physical endeavour, covered up by her ragged garment and soiled face, her assiduous imitation pays off wondrously, it boldly resists viewer’s expectation and inspires extolment.
Ms. Bancroft, not quite a household name among cinema-goers at then, comes on board with her take-no-prisoners modus operandi, do whatever she can to drag Helen out of her “wild child” caprice, and it is only an outsider from the family can do, without compassion. Here, an overlong battle between her and Duke with regards to table manners can be hailed as one of the most intensely choreographed fighting sequence ever occurred on screen, all takes place in one single dining room, where dramatised tug-of-war is livened up to slapstick antics, which are not to induce laughter, but a compelling tension so viscerally sensed by viewers.
All the more, Bancroft also has to come to terms with the vacillation from Helen’s family, and her own traumatic past experience in an asylum with his diseased brother, where Penn and DP Caparrós deploy some unique camera tricks to a haunting and harrowing effect.
The epithet “Oscar-winning actress” is an apt reward to Bancroft and Duke, but in a perfect world, Inga Swenson’s heartfelt turn as Helen’s loving mother Kate should also have reaped some recognition, only if Duke could have been pushed to the leading category, which would leave the spot for Ms. Swenson, a Joanne Woodward lookalike, whose career never really took off. By sheer contrast, the old hand Victor Jory, who plays the domineering father, really gets on one’s nerves for chewing up the scenery.
The vastly gratifying epiphany is the moment when Helen finally understands the true function of the “bridge”, created by Anne, to link her closed heart with the world around her, the connection between the signed language and the items she can feel tactilely, it is so obvious in the eyes of a common sighter, but, for Helen, and all those with similar disabilities, it takes a sea change of progress. Without additional flourishes, the movie comes to its halt when Helen earns the key to embrace her life, the one would turn out to be quite extraordinary!.
Cinema is an art-form catering to those who can see, something we viewers always take for granted, but indeed we should always be grateful to that, that’s a golden takeaway from this hallmark theatrical piece of cinema.