Directors: Arthur Penn
Screenplay: William Gibson
Based on a stage play by: William Gibson
Starring: Anne Bancroft, Patty Duke, Inga Swenson, Victor Jory, Andrew Prine
Running Time: 106 min
BBFC Certificate: PG
After directing his first film in 1958, The Left-Handed Gun, and finding himself unhappy with the working processes as well as being disappointed at the film’s reception, Arthur Penn gave up on Hollywood, going back to the stage where he found great success. However, one of the smash hits he directed on Broadway was an adaptation of The Miracle Worker, a teleplay he’d directed in 1957. It was such a success, Hollywood came knocking and Penn was offered a chance to translate the script he’d developed with William Gibson (on both versions) to the big screen. So his movie career was resurrected and The Miracle Worker film was once again a big hit, giving Penn a level of clout to work on the sort of projects he was keenly interested in, such as his attempt at harnessing the French New Wave, Mickey One (1964), and his most famous film, the groundbreaking New Hollywood classic, Bonnie and Clyde (1967).
The Miracle Worker was an important film for Penn then and was highly regarded on its release. It’s not quite as well known these days, but Eureka have deemed it worthy of a Blu-ray release, interestingly on their Eureka Classics label rather than on Masters of Cinema.
The film is based on a pivotal period of the early life of the iconic deaf-blind woman, Helen Keller. It sees her as an adolescent (played by Patty Duke) who can’t communicate with anyone, acting in a near animalistic fashion, roaming her family home and grounds, causing chaos along the way. Her parents, Captain Arthur (Victor Jory) and Kate Keller (Inga Swenson), are at their wit’s end and try one last desperate attempt to hire a specialist to basically ‘housetrain’ their daughter so they can physically cope with her presence. If this fails, they’ll be left with no option but to institutionalise her.
The tutor that shows up though, Annie Sullivan (Anne Bancroft), has grander plans. She was also severely visually impaired as a child, regaining her sight through a series of operations, so appreciates Helen’s issues are not due to a mental deficiency (as her parents presume), but a physical one that is impairing her understanding of the world. The years of Kate smothering and protecting Helen have led her to become trapped in this entirely dependent and aimless existence, so Annie attempts to crack her out of it. Her methods are extreme and tough though, so she clashes with Kate and Arthur whilst struggling to get through to Helen. The key turning point Annie is looking to reach with her pupil is for her to understand the relevance of the ‘deaf-alphabet’ symbols she can mimic. If Annie can make Helen connect objects in the outside world with the words being spelt out, it will unlock a vital level of comprehension required to move ahead with any sort of education.
Anyone who knows what Helen Keller went on to achieve in life will know whether or not Annie is successful, but it doesn’t make the journey any more fascinating or powerful. Indeed, the final moments are deeply moving.
Providing a large bulk of this power are the two lead actresses, who both went on to win Academy Awards for their work here (Bancroft bagging Best Actress and Duke Best Supporting Actress). They’d both performed in Penn’s stage production of the story and bring an incredible physicality to their roles. Truly uninhibited, they aggressively grapple and fight as Helen continues to do what she wants and understands, whilst Annie attempts to correct her and make the appropriate connections to reach a new understanding. These ‘battles’ are incredibly intense, with an epic central showdown at the dinner table standing out as being particularly draining.
Jory and Swenson as Helen’s parents are less impressive. Bancroft and Duke play it large, but in a raw fashion that’s necessary for their roles, whereas Jory and Swenson come across as over-the-top. Some of their key scenes, which can be a little dated and melodramatic, are my only gripe with the film. Luckily, the core focus is on Helen and Annie and their scenes are electrifying, so the film maintains a very high standard for the most part.
Away from performances, the film is technically and artistically impressive too. Though adapted from a stage play and set in minimal locations with a small cast, Penn creates a wonderfully cinematic experience. Chiefly, the cinematography is fantastic. Keeping at an often ground-level to bring the audience eye-to-eye with the protagonists, the camera occasionally explodes into movement when documenting a tantrum or grapple. The lighting is heavy on shadows too, creating a moody, atmospheric look from the otherwise quite constrictive housebound locations. Some abstract flashbacks and dreams bring some additional visual flourishes, being left hazy and dark to replicate Annie’s poor eyesight as a child.
So, although I had some issues with the parents in the film, for the most part, this is an astonishingly raw and powerful look at how one woman managed to get through to a girl whose loving parents had practically given up on. Annie’s methods may be questionable (she gets pretty violent) but they worked, paving the way for a life that is the very definition of “inspirational” (look Helen Keller up) and this film makes a strong argument for them. With two uncompromising performances at its core and some striking craftsmanship, it’s also a damn fine film in general.
The Miracle Worker is out on 27th January on Blu-Ray in the UK, released by Eureka as part of their Eureka Classics series. There’s a little minor damage on the picture, but overall it’s an impressively sharp and detailed transfer. The audio isn’t quite as strong though, with a little noise/crackle in the background, though it’s still very clear.
Extra features include:
– Presented in 1080p from a high-definition digital transfer
– Optional English subtitles (SDH)
– Uncompressed LPCM mono audio
– Brand new audio essay by Amy Simmons
– Theatrical trailer
– A collector’s booklet featuring new essays by film critic and writer Alexandra Heller-Nicholas, and film critic and author Richard Combs.
It’s not one of Eureka’s most comprehensive sets, but Amy Simmons’ audio essay is interesting and the booklet is more than a match for any featurette, with a couple of illuminating pieces on the film.