In her latest film critique Alison Wilde compares underlying messages of two films featuring deaf actors cast in lead roles – the Hollywood horror A Quiet Place and the award-winning short The Silent Child – and asks some deeper questions about the issue of disabled actors playing disabled roles.
A Quiet Place is a rare film in that it ticks a lot of disability boxes, doesn’t have an explicit message about disability or our attitudes to it, includes a Deaf person in a leading role, but best of all is a hugely enjoyable film (as long as you like the ‘horror genre’).
The week before I saw this I found myself to be one of the (unpopular) dissenters, in my disagreement with the praise given to Oscar-winning short film, The Silent Child. It was wonderful to see Maisie Sly cast in the central role of Libby and it was also good to see the delivery of a much-needed, and overt, message about the need to recognise Sign Language and a demonstration of the loneliness of children who are denied social connections – at school, in communities of schoolchildren, and to the Deaf community. But there are also potential dangers associated with a film such as this, where only one person, Libby’s social worker Joanne (Rachel Shenton), has an awareness of her need to communicate with BSL (perhaps reinforcing ideas that professionals know better, which so many of us have fought against).
Such a short film did not allow sufficient time for its writers to show a more nuanced picture of why Libby’s parents did not support BSL, or the struggles which disabled/Deaf families face in trying to get enough support to just live. Nor were we made aware of anything beyond the individual relationship with Joanne, such as the crisis in provision for Deaf children, (described in a recent Guardian article as being in ‘complete disarray’).
I feel that the blatancy of The Silent Child’s moral lesson is likely to reach an audience who do not need to be converted. It may well be useful in promoting inclusion in schools but experience tells me that children can ‘do diversity’ much better than adults do, and it is the policy-makers and professionals who need to watch the film.
Although Rachel Shenton wrote the film and had a parent who became Deaf, I have found the disposition for overt messages to be common in many films directed by non-disabled writers and directors (but certainly not all); think Me Before You and Wonder, for recent examples of non-disabled writers who were curious about the effects of impairments they had witnessed, both purveying ableist/ disableist stories borne of curiosity, proffering schmaltzy, inspiration porn-type messages, which prosper at the box office.
The Silent Child doesn’t patronise in this way, but its status as a worthy Oscar winning film about difference is also likely to strengthen the idea that this is what films about disabled and Deaf people should look like. Given the tendency for audiences to resist explicitly message-based films, often disregarding the moral lessons (probably more so when it is focused on only one individual), I much prefer the depiction of Deafness, as an integral part of the story, in A Quiet Place. Here too, there was the deliberate casting of a Deaf person. It seems that the director John Krasinski met some resistance in casting Millicent Simmonds as Regan, but was determined to have a Deaf actor in the role.
A Quiet Place is doing well at the box office, having made over $40 million in its first weekend, but it differs a great deal from both the films noted above and also The Silent Child, in that it has no explicit message about Deafness or disability, nor does it place the spectator as a voyeur of a world which is symbolised as ‘different’ to their own.
The Deaf actor Millicent Simmonds plays a key role, as Regan Abbot, the daughter in a family of five who are living in a post-apocalyptic world of silence; they are all the prey of sound-hunting monsters, and their survival is dependent on making no sound. Whilst Regan’s Deafness is key to some aspects of the plot, in terms of their survival and the relationships between family members, her character is embedded firmly within the story and is not used as a narrative ‘prosthetic’ – we see elements of her life as sister, a daughter, and as an agent of her own destiny, putting pressure on her dad to develop a better hearing aid (no spoilers here so you’ll have to judge for yourself).
Whilst there is certainly no suggestion that Regan’s parents have ignored her needs in the way Libby’s mother did in The Silent Child (quite the opposite given the family’s use of sign language), we perhaps see a general sense of stigma played out in Regan’s doubts about her father’s love and commitment to her. Another aspect of the film which excels, especially in the resonance with many disabled families’ experiences, is the film’s portrayal of inter-dependency as a crucial means of survival, with all the characters (including the children) acting as agents to protect themselves and the rest of their family.
This achievement of a nuanced portrayal of impairment and disablement is achieved through a number of cinematic strategies; for example, we see the family walking along on their journey together and are unaware of our position as hearing viewers, until the camera switches from the whole family to focus on Regan – the sound of the crunching gravel suddenly disappears, directly showing Regan’s point of view/hearing.
Although Krasinski and his co-writer, Bryan Woods, were motivated by their love of silent films, this film often feels like a meditation on sound. Knowing that their lives depend on silence, audience members who can hear become hyper-aware of the smallest of sounds, adding to the mounting tensions and anticipated horror, increasing viewers’ engagement with the story.
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The biggest flaw of the film is that this is probably less true for viewers with hearing impairments, if they are viewing without subtitles. I found it incongruous that subtitles were given when the characters were using sign language to communicate, but they were not provided on the few occasions where the characters used oral communications – here the audience were dependent on hearing. However, the necessity of sign language as a means of communication is an unavoidable theme of the film, demonstrating its undisputable value to all those who depend on it for daily living and survival as a family/community.
Whereas John Defore’s review of A Quiet Place suggests an allusion to parenting in a world gone very, very wrong, highlighting contemporary issues of parental fear and responsibility, I also thought the horror of the family’s situation might be an allegory for the precariousness that many of us feel in the current era, where you make just one wrong move (often judged on arbitrary and unjust criteria) and every aspect of your life is at risk. This is perhaps a real fear for most of us, not least disabled people, so it is especially valuable that a Deaf actor was a crucial part of this film (especially a female actor/character, as deaf and disabled women are still under-represented) and even better that she was cast as part of an interdependent family. However, I think the desire for impairment matching can become problematic, not least for disabled actors, a theme I will return to in a future post.