Adapted from a play by William Gibson, though based on the story of the real Anne Sullivan, Arthur Penn’s The Miracle Worker is a strange thing.  A film that is, all at once: a cloying exercise in middlebrow emotional wool-gathering; an endurance-test for protagonist and viewer alike; almost gothic in its mise-en-scene, the lighting particularly; and something like a Hollywood primer on Ordinary Language Philosophy (It’s Hollywood does Wittgenstein in Alabama).

After contracting scarlet fever as an infant, Helen Keller (Patty Duke) became deaf and blind. Years later, her parents, Kate (Inga Swenson) and Arthur (Victor Jory), are at a loss about what to do to educate or occupy Helen, whose energetic and inquisitive nature puts a strain on their patience and their household. They write to a specialist school in Massachusetts, who respond by sending a former pupil, Anne Sullivan (Anne Bancroft), to their home in Tuscumbia, Alabama as the young girl’s tutor. 

Kate likes Anne’s approach, her directness, but Arthur is less convinced, worried about her own former blindness, and he thinks she could do to approach their daughter with more affection. Which is, to Anne’s eyes, precisely the problem: the family coddle Helen, love her in an inappropriate way; they don’t teach her anything, structure her life in any fashion — at dinner, Helen circles the table clutching fistfuls of her family’s meals plate by plate, and the family don’t react, they continue with their conversations: Anne sees that, in a profound way, the family have abandoned her, so she attempts to teach Helen how to communicate by making her touch an object then spell out the word belonging to that object with her hands. 

Penn’s direction tries to achieve a balance between the two urges of the material: Anne’s psycho-drama, on the one hand, as memories from her past begin to serve as (over)explanations for her current indomitable will, and on the other, melodrama of the roaringly sentimental variety, as Anne arduously tries to facilitate Helen’s self-expression. Long-takes, close-ups, lap-dissolves, and superimpositions cover the psycho-drama and Penn’s emphasis on the haptic; the other half of the film can be identified in a moment by the use of a soapy, high-stringed score: the sudden pulsations of which claw at a viewer’s sympathy, begging for anyone watching to feel something, because the images, sounds, and writing forgot to do their part in this process.  

But the film compensates — excessively — those disappointed by the mawkishness of Anne’s mission by way of performance. The film won two Academy Awards for acting in 1962, and it’s easy to see why: The Miracle Worker contains some of the most acting of the ’60s. Duke plays Helen as furiously active, channelling all her force into movement, whether running or crawling, swinging, slapping, clasping, or throwing. Bancroft has to match her, so, in one scene following a disastrous dinner the battle between the characters is extended to a painful duration, as Helen refuses to use a spoon to collect her food neatly. Bancroft runs as quickly and as much as Duke does. The intense physicality of the performances can’t be faulted, but the attempts to sincerely emote near the film’s end can, and the other members of the house barely register. (And Bancroft’s Irish accent is exactly as good as the ones adopted by Orson Welles in The Lady from Shanghai and James Mason in The Reckless Moment: which is to say, not very.)

The Miracle Worker is just one of the many examples of Hollywood depicting disability for the purpose of coaxing viewers into lachrymosity: it might not be the most egregious of its kind, but the film’s “we shall transcend adversity through love!” schtick still manages to leave a wearying impression. 

Available now on Blu-ray