Thursday 4 July 2019

100 Essential Films That Deserve More Attention - 49. The Miracle Worker

People embrace the enchanting glow of the big screen for all manner of reasons; to journey to faraway places they could only ever imagine, to experience the escapism of a captivating story, or maybe to indulge in an obsession with the world of cinema. For me, all three of these reasons apply - and many more - but first and foremost is the satisfaction of recommending obscure films to other like-minded individuals who adopt them as their new favourites.

With over 100 years worth of films to choose from, and many of these now available at the click of a button, it can be extremely difficult to narrow your choices down to pick a film to watch. Although cinema has been around for over four times longer than my life on this earth, I have spent what some may consider an unhealthy amount of these years delving into the history of films to discover some of the best hidden gems out there.

This series of articles aims to highlight the overlooked masterpieces that I have unearthed whilst exploring the forgotten recesses of cinema. Take a gamble on any one of these films and I guarantee that you will be eagerly awaiting all future instalments in this series. You may well have heard of a number of these films; my aim isn't merely to shine a spotlight on the most obscure films out there, but to share my enjoyment of those films which don't have the cult following I believe they deserve.

The Miracle Worker
Director - Arthur Penn
Country - USA
Year - 1962
Runtime - 106 minutes

We can try to imagine living in a world where we are unable to see or hear but this frightening concept is always short-lived for anyone who can open their eyes and uncover their ears. This unfathomable condition is an affliction that befell Helen Keller and left her in isolation from those around her when she became ill at just nineteen months old. Only one person, Annie Sullivan, who was half blind herself, had any faith in Helen’s ability to learn language and gain a further understanding of the world that she was shut out from. The Miracle Worker is a bold and captivating depiction of Annie's efforts to help and educate Helen - an inspirational true account of the emotionally charged development of a cruelly misunderstood young girl.

The film’s events are based on Helen’s own autobiographical narrative of her formative years, although it explores this time of her life in far more detail, revealing the difficulties and intricacies involved in her attempts to grasp the concept of language. Helen is portrayed by Patty Duke in a physically and emotionally draining role that depicts the hurt and suffering Helen experienced at the hands of her family. A family who cared for Helen but were unable to communicate with her in a way that enabled her to understand the strange environment she inhabits. Anne Bancroft is exceptional in her role as Annie Sullivan, the miracle worker who acts as a catalyst for Helen’s development, retaining belief in Helen’s ability to learn when others had all but abandoned such doubtful notions.

Annie's attempts to educate Helen initially prove disastrous; placing a difficult barrier in their relationship that leads Helen's parents, Captain Keller (Victor Jory) and Kate Keller (Inga Swenson), to reconsider if Annie is capable of easing their daughter's understandably ill-tempered and destructive ways. Progress is slow and proves challenging for Annie but - haunted by memories of her distressing past, and desperate to help Helen break out of her shell - she persists with her attempts at teaching words to Helen through a series of gestures with her hands. Helen's older brother James (Andrew Prine) mocks Annie for this approach, pointing out that Helen is merely mimicking the gestures she is shown but Annie remains steadfast, determined to connect with the troubled adolescent mind that is longing to escape her unnatural confinement.

The interplay between these two characters is fascinating to behold, particularly when their combined persistence overcomes seemingly insurmountable challenges and Helen’s development becomes more tangible. Together they have a vast mountain to climb and the film’s success hinges largely on the two captivating performers who draw you into a strange and unique plight that is depicted in an incredibly enthralling and heart-rending manner.

Duke's performance as Helen is absolutely phenomenal; her character's struggle is portrayed as a constant battle, with fiery outbursts that impinge on both her family and teacher. These torrents of rage are one of the only ways in which Helen is able to express herself and are the cause of much destruction and frustration in the Keller household. Duke's vivid facial expressions invite you into Helen's psyche, providing an insight into a troubled mind that Annie is longing to release from its shackles. Bancroft is likewise first rate as Annie, bringing an extraordinary warmth and charm to a character who is, at times, very curt and quite eccentric, but never loses sight of her goal to aid Helen. The burgeoning relationship between the two leads serves to fill the audience with hope as their powerhouse performances provide a raw intensity to an incredibly uplifting and revelatory story.

Arthur Penn is the intrepid director who adapted the hit stage play of The Miracle Worker into a film and the taut screenplay benefits from his distinct visual flair that is apparent from the opening credits. These initial scenes comprise of a montage of Helen reacting to the world around her, including a hauntingly evocative scene as she approaches a jet black reflective bauble on a Christmas tree that smashes when she reaches for it, hinting at the fragility of her grasp on the world she lives in. A similarly melancholic montage plays out when Keller's family decide to reach out for help from an institute for the blind, who send Annie Sullivan to answer their request for aid. When Annie travels by train to meet Helen, we are transported deep into her fragile mind through a series of hazy flashbacks that amalgamate with her present surroundings through the use of impressive and striking editing techniques.

When Penn isn't dazzling with his inventive imagery he is framing the action with a keen eye for composition, making the most of a story that, by its very nature, is limited to a handful of locations. He utilises long takes to capture the frustrations of both Helen and Annie during their heated fracas which serve as important life lessons for Helen. These powerful scenes reveal the stage play roots of The Miracle Worker but are embellished with flourishes that heighten the intensity in ways that would be impossible under the restrictions of a theatre production.

Both utterly compelling and devastatingly poignant, The Miracle Worker is a fascinating biographical account of a real life struggle to overcome a seemingly impossible challenge. This is a journey that we can all empathise with, and it is likely to fill your eyes with tears and your heart with joy, in what is undoubtedly an American classic. The Miracle Worker takes us to some dark and depressing places, with its stark and powerful realism demonstrated from the very first scenes. However, the cathartic journey that Helen Keller and Annie Sullivan embark upon makes for a rewarding viewing experience that will leave you astounded by the courage and determination of two remarkably inspirational women.

If you take the time to watch The Miracle Worker then it would be awesome if you could also take the time to let me know what you thought of it, either by commenting below or tweeting me @filmbantha. Thanks, and enjoy!

For previous instalments in the series click here

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