United Kingdom, 1952
Directed by Alexander Mackendrick
With Mandy Miller (Mandy Garland), Phyllis Calvert (Christine Garland), Terence Morgan (Harry Garland), Jack Hawkins (Dick Searle), Edward Chapman (Mr. Ackland)
Shot in close-ups, an infant girl quietly plays alone. A cut: the camera now shows her mother telling a friend about her worries. Another cut: the father comes in and gently mocks her. This pattern would prove long to break: as Mandy Garland slides into her own world, getting out of reach from others, her mother, Christine, will strive to find a solution while her father, Harry, will not accept the facts. The narrative is built around a twin battle: the fight to give Mandy a place in the world and the struggle for authority this forces on her parents.
Mandy is naturally born deaf and dumb, to use the phrase then used in English. Once the parents have grudgingly accepted the fact, they decide to take care of the child on their own and to shelter her in the mansion of Harry’s parents. When she turns 6 and difficulties get bigger, Christine vows to give her a specialized education and enrolls her in a famous institution, against the will of Harry. As a consequence the couple breaks up. Mandy’s experience at school is excruciating and it takes all the patience and goodwill of the school’s director, Dick Searle, to get results. But then Mandy improves, though not fast enough to convince Harry, who is led to believe that Christine and Searle have an affair, that she has a better life. He brings his daughter back to his parents but he must then deal with the stubbornness of his wife and above all the reality of Mandy’s newly acquired abilities. The family is eventually reunited, a brighter tomorrow in sight.
Mandy’s plight turns the world upside down. In the story’s beginning, an outstanding shot shows in the foreground a teddy bear Christine frantically presses to make it squeal and in the background the still back of Mandy: a sound provokes nothing but a disturbingly indifferent behavior and thus the quiet picture of a play between a baby and a mother conveys horror. The movie would always turn the perceptions on their head: the nice and well-lighted Garland mansion is in fact a prison preventing Mandy’s development but the old, grim and dark building of the specialized school is the place that sets her free to communicate; the very act of breaking crockery out of rage is not a banal and childish act but the moment Mandy does shout and discover her voice; the gruff attitude of Searle masks his passion for kids and their little world; to be a good mother, Christine becomes a single parent and a working woman, the opposite of what she should be in her social class. Even the rules of a talking movie are discarded when the director goes as far as sharing the way Mandy is confronted to the reality and cuts off the sound as he shots a close-up on her. The impact is amazing.
The strength of the film lies in this effort to challenge innate perceptions and in its relentless and creative pursuit of the best ways to record the tragedy. It spares no detail in the description of Mandy’s dismal life and keeps the audience deeply aware of her plight. Of course, her improvements get the same attention, and her newfound ability to be with other children and to communicate feels just like a great victory after a riveting battle that can’t leave any moviegoer indifferent. Her final smile tells it all.
The romantic melodrama that goes with Mandy’s adventure is less compelling. The clash between her parents is willfully worsened by the idea of an affair whose purpose is to give more dramatic weight to the character of Searle. It is fed by the animosity between Searle and Mr. Ackland, one of the trustees of the institution and the perfect foil to Searle’s benevolent personality. A villain was deemed necessary to make the melodrama more thrilling and he is just perfunctorily played while this conventional twist does not add anything to the narrative. Actually, its wonderful sense of storytelling and shot compositions is impressive enough to seduce and convince. Here is a moving, gripping, serious description of the life of a deaf person and of the hope education and love represent to any child.