William Wyler (director)
BFI Film (studio)
18 June 2018 (released)
03 July 2018
Based on Lillian Hellman’s play of the same name, THE CHILDREN’S HOUR caused uproar and sensation when it was first staged on Broadway in 1934. This movie version from 1961 stars Audrey Hepburn and Shirley MacLaine as two former college classmates who open a private school for girls, but denunciation and false accusations soon derail not only the lives of the two women but of those close to them…
Martha Dobie (MacLaine) and Karen Wright (Hepburn) worked hard to open the ‘Dobie-Wright Private School for Girls’ but so far things seem to run successfully. Martha’s aunt Lily (Miriam Hopkins), with whom Martha doesn’t get on too well, lives in the same building and teaches elocution lessons. Meanwhile, Karen is engaged to respected obstetrician Joe Cardin (James Garner) who grows tired of delivering the babies of other women when he would like nothing more than finally marry Karen and have kids of his own. One of the pupils is spoiled brat Mary (Karen Balkin), the granddaughter of influential dame Amelia Tilford (Fay Bainter) who in turn is related to Joe. Mary Tilford is a nightmare of a pupil, always causing trouble and taking delight in bullying fellow pupil Rosalie (Veronica Cartwright), a timid girl with a penchant for ‘borrowing’ other students jewellery. When Mary finds out she blackmails Rosalie into paying her a little money here, a little money there but Mary gets her comeuppance thanks to a lie and is barred by Rosalie from participating in a boat race. Mary throws a tantrum as only she can do it and – in a sulking mode – bamboozles her gran into taking her away from this ghastly school where everyone is so horrible to poor Mary. Gran Amelia falls for Mary’s lies but the biggest lie is yet to come for Mary, out of spite because teachers Ms. Dobie and Ms. Wright told her off for being naughty and spoiled, fabricates a story that accuses the two teachers of having an ‘unmentionable’ relationship…
Soon the gossip mill keeps turning at frightening speed and concerned and disgusted parents remove their daughters from the Dobie-Wright school one by one without giving as much as a reason. Martha and Karen are at their wits end as to what’s actually going on and it is only when the father of one of the pupils mentions the ‘unmentionable’ that Martha and Karen begin to realize the true impact the rumour has. While Karen desperately tries to prove to Joe that there is no truth is the gossip Aunt Lily leaves the building. Martha and Karen – in a bid to save their reputation and the school they’ve worked for so hard, decide to file a lawsuit against Amelia Tilford, accusing her of defamation. But the damage is done and while Karen and Martha try picking up the pieces of their shattered lives it is the latter who must finally admit to herself that her feelings for Karen were always more than just friendship. Frightened and disgusted by her own ‘unnatural’ feelings and convinced that she drove a wedge between Karen and her fiancé Joe, Martha takes an unexpected step which ends in tragedy…
Hellman’s play was inspired by the 1809 true case of two Scottish school teachers though in their case with slightly less devastating consequences. Both Hepburn and MacLaine deliver outstanding performances though in particular it is MacLaine whose nuanced and multi-faceted expression of desire, mixed with angst of the forbidden, adds all the more power to this thought-provoking psychological drama.