How I’d not connected the dots between the work of director William Wyler and some of the greatest films of the 50s and 60s Hollywood era is beyond me. My brain hasn’t been firing on all cylinders in years, but something must have clicked during my watch of The Children’s Hour. Another collaboration for Wyler and Audrey Hepburn, but doing away with the light whimsy of a holiday to Italy, replacing it instead with a terrifying tale of childish lies expanding at a rapid pace.
Audrey Hepburn was always an incredible talent to have on-screen, she proved as much with a stunningly good turn in Roman Holiday. What she lacked, though, was authority as a truly great dramatist, and that’s what The Children’s Hour provides her with. The chance to showcase her talents not as an object of affection for a charming leading man, but as a persona mired by controversy thanks to jealous students and conniving, homewrecking plans. It’s a sad state of affairs, to see two likeable characters fall to deceit and poorly co-ordinated lies, it tips their world on its head, and the consequences are dire, motivated by spite and rage.
Its central performances are incredible. Shirley MacLaine and Hepburn make for such an incredible leading duo, The Children’s Hour manages to coast on their chemistry and performances alone. James Garner provides such a strong supporting role for the film as Joe Cardin, the only loyal friend our leading pair can rely on. Anguish is just as key to this piece as MacLaine, Hepburn, and Garner are, a quartet that dominates the setting. Forgiveness and accepting virtues are absent almost entirely, replaced by such anger and suffering. It’s hard to wade through all of this, not because of how much of it there is, but because of how harsh it is. There’s no moment to breathe, either, which is a tremendous feat of endurance Wyler manages to explore, the second the seed of doubt is planted in the mind of one, it blossoms and grows without showing any signs of stopping.
Envy and lust play a big part of the narrative crafted by The Children’s Hour, but not in the way our covetous young students expect it. A charming, tragic film that cements Wyler’s craft as some of the best in the business. It plays such a great series of moments and characters against one another as they battle against a statement that we as an audience know to be untrue. The frustrations mount, not just for our protagonists, but the audience as well. A haunting, truly marvellous exposure of how repressed emotions can not only bubble over, but change the course of your life forever. The Children’s Hour tugs at the heartstrings frequently with a compelling narrative, agonizingly good roles that herald this doomed leading pair, and the grand direction necessary to hold it all together.