Though Penn’s filmmaking, which is at times obtrusive, and often “artless”, prevents The Miracle Worker from being a truly great film, it still excels as a portrait of human strength through both Anne Sullivan and Helen Killer. The performances of these two characters have gone down as among the strongest in the American film tradition, and this is with good reason. Again though, there are very brief moment where Bancroft’s false apart, this is due completely to the heavy handed flashbacks’ put in place by the filmmaker. They are faded images upon the scene, we watch as Bancroft reaches out to her past, an obvious and tired visual associated with this kind of remembrance. It’s such a brief moment of compromise however, that it does little to undermine the rest of her work. The film works largely on a literal level, Helen Keller is blind and deaf, and her parents have done little to teach and care for her. At the end of their ropes, they entertain the idea of sending her to an institution, but first try one more teacher, the stubborn and crude, Anne Sullivan, who is just twenty years old. Though she can see a bit now, Sullivan was born blind. She had a difficult life, and is a born survivor. She cannot abide how Helen Keller has been spoiled and indulged, but never doubts that she will be able to teach her.
Though blind and death, Helen Keller is an intelligent child, she has no other disabilities or problems that impair her understanding. It’s only her lack of awareness of the world around her that prevent her from interracting with it. The film is a struggle for words, as Helen can mirror what she is taught, but never quite grasps what they mean. No one except Anne believes that she has the capacity to learn, and maintains patience and steadfastness throughout.
The screenplay, based on the play, adds an interesting theological level to both Anne’s character, and the play’s greater meaning. Even in the title, Anne is described as a “miracle worker”, and more than once her ambition is equated with that of God. Some doubt that it’s even God will’s that Helen will “see”, but Anne sees her will as being far more important. In a way, she puts herself in the position of God teaching Helen everything about the world. Opening her eyes and her soul to the world around her. There are even some interesting discussion between her and the Captain (Helen’s father), about obedience without will or understanding, being a kind of blindness and even an imprisonment. It’s an interesting commentary on human nature on a whole, and how Anne refuses to be blind and dumb to the world around her, and doesn’t allow Helen to be the same. Even the final moments, as everything comes together for Helen, the sky opens and the sun shines down on her.
Of course, not much more can be said for Patty Duke’s incredible turn as Helen. The only real problem with her work is that it may be too good, it’s difficult to not stand back and think how good she is. Her vocal performance especially is stirring.
It also has to be said, I remember watching this film in school as a child. I remember parts of it quite vividly, the opening scene especially remains ingrained in my mind. Even today it is an incredible frightening and disturbing scene, as the realization that her daughter cannot see or hear dawns on her mother. The surrounding darkness, coupled with the screaming of both parents is potent, and will no doubt stay with me for a long time to come.