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Film Title

The Children’s Hour

Director

William Wyler

Starring

  • Audrey Hepburn as Karen Wright
  • Shirley MacLaine as Martha Dobie
  • James Garner as Joe Cardin
  • Karen Balkin as Mary Tilford
  • Fay Bainter as Amelia Tilford
  • Miriam Hopkins as Lily Mortar
  • Veronica Cartwright as Rosalie

William Wyler directs this powerful and daring adaptation of Lillian Hellman’s controversial play, The Children’s Hour. Focusing on the repercussions of a spiteful lie and the emotional fallout, it provides compelling and emotionally gripping viewing.

The Children's HourGood friends Karen Wright and Martha Dobie are the headmistresses of a private school for girls in New England. Karen is engaged to doctor Joe Cardin, who she plans to marry soon. Martha is slightly jealous of this and doesn’t want her friend taken away from her. She has a heated conversation with her Aunt Lily, a former Broadway star and elocution teacher about her feelings of loneliness. Her aunt tells her that her relationship could be seen unnatural.  Among the girls attending the school is Mary Tilford, a spoiled and vicious bully who delights in trouble. After being reprimanded by Karen over a wrongdoing, the spiteful girl forms a lie based on fragments of gossip given to her by her friends and tells her grandmother Amelia that Karen and Martha are lovers. Mary continues to fabricate this lie making her grandmother believe her. As a prominent citizen, Amelia quickly tells the other parents of the girls. One by one, the girls are withdrawn from the school as the rumours begin to spread about Karen and Martha’s relationship. The lie soon leads to swift, unexpected and ultimately tragic consequences as the two women are ostracized and their school becomes ruined.

The first thing to praise in this powerful tale of the horrifying impact of lies is how it deals with its subject matter. Lesbianism was still very much a taboo subject in the 60’s, The Children’s Hour manages to address this in a way many people will understand and doesn’t sugarcoat the source material. It examines how the women are treated when the rumours start, one particularly horrifying scene includes a group of men gleefully staring at the women, judging them because of their alleged relationship. The scene clearly demonstrates the prejudice and stigma against gay people during this time and shows it to devastating and heartbreaking effect.William Wyler directs with immediacy and quiet power as the camera looms over the school that gradually becomes silent as the girls leave and the two women at the centre of the story are torn apart by the lie of the spiteful Mary. The music score is an evocative one, engulfing the audience in the emotional fallout with crescendos and quiet strings. The script deftly captures the atmosphere of confusion and betrayal all caused by a few words from a little girl.

What gives The Children’s Hour its powerful impact is the talented cast. Audrey Hepburn subtly and luminously portrays Karen with a solemn and quiet reserve that takes on a pained expression when the lie begins to circle and her happy life is destroyed. Shirley MacLaine works excellently against Hepburn and delivers a touching performance as the needy Martha, who begins to crumble as the lie engulfs every inch of her existence. James Garner is suitably kind as the doctor engaged to Karen, who is one of the few people to stand by the women as others judge them. Karen Balkin is wickedness personified as the mendacious Mary, whose little lie puts the swift wheels in motion that lead to the pain endured by Martha and Karen. Fay Bainter nails her supporting role as Amelia, who spreads the lie but comes to see that her granddaughter is fabricating events too late. Miriam Hopkins is a delight as the highly strung Aunt Lily, who accidentally puts her foot in it many times. A young Veronica Cartwright essays the role of Rosalie, a classmate of Mary’s who is blackmailed into cooperating with the telling of the lie.

Powerful, daring and emotionally involving, The Children’s Hour shows the swift and tragic impact that one lie can have on the people involved.

 

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