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MOVIE REVIEW : THE MIRACLE OF ANNIE

Times Film Critic

Recently, we’ve had several movies that have languished under new and far less apt titles than the ones they were born with. “Catholic Boys,” for instance, disappeared into the mush of “Heaven Help Us,” the “us” presumably being audiences trying to remember the film’s name. Now, we have the Australian multiple award-winner, “Annie’s Coming Out,” which has been sprinkled with unholy water and rebaptized “A Test of Love” (at the Cineplex), a name straight out of disease-of-the-week TV movies.

No! A film this spirited deserves its original, bluntly cheerful title. It is the true story of Annie McDonald, a young cerebral palsy victim, incorrectly diagnosed as severely retarded and institutionalized from the age of 3, whose quicksilver intelligence was discovered in 1974, when she was 13.

McDonald’s true story is as thrilling as “The Miracle Worker,” perhaps more so, since Helen Keller never had to wrest control of her own body from a central nervous system that ran it as if there were “a maniac at the switchboard.”

McDonald told her side of life as a “vegetable” in an institution--where only deep rage kept her alive into her teens--in personal comments in “Annie’s Coming Out,” a hugely successful book abroad. Its companion sections were written by Rosemary Crossley (called Jessica Hathaway in the film), the dogged therapist who found the spark within a gaunt, spasm-wracked 13-year-old and fought to see that others saw it too. Their intention was to challenge our image of the severely handicapped, to act as a beacon for others in institutions who may be trapped as Annie was.

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That is the intention of the film, too, and its most heartfelt sections are between teacher and child, played with overwhelming intensity by Angela Punch McGregor (of “The Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith” and “We of the Never Never”) and Tina Arhondis, a brown-eyed 9-year-old with an enormous smile who was herself born with cerebral palsy. (Annie McDonald becomes Annie O’Farrell for the purposes of the picture.)

The story is a battle on multiple fronts: bureaucratic, medical and personal. Hathaway joins the staff of the fictional Brentwood Hospital, the film’s substitution for Melbourne’s St. Nicholas Hospital, as a secondary therapist, assistant to Vera Peters (Monica Maughan), a good and caring psychiatrist who is simply less willing to pour her entire life into the lives of her charges. These severely retarded children, silent or wailing piteously, are clean, decently tended but wretched in high, toy-free steel beds like individual jails. The institution is by no means a snake pit, but it is spare to the point of being forbiddingly bare.

Hathaway’s revolutions include color television, posters, trips outdoors, finger paints, music, color and the beat of life. And by the time she gets a glimmering that there is real intelligence beneath Annie’s severely depressed exterior, she becomes a person obsessed.

The Hathaway/O’Farrell story and its outcome are heroic, no question about that. Their opposition included unbelieving doctors and nurses willing to perjure themselves in court to protect their institution, a pair of confused parents wrestling with awful guilt, and someone even willing to attempt murder in the ward.

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Yet, basically, “A Test of Love” has no real suspense in its outcome (unlike “Mask”). You go to see it because you know something of the story and want to see it movingly reinforced.

Director Gil Brearly works to keep the details interesting: Annie is no malleable doll but an angry, challenging teen-ager in a small child’s body--a body in almost constant motion and bent back almost in a bow when Hathaway first sees her. This Annie is almost mulish enough to defeat her own cause. But what we must be able to do is connect the Annie whose words we hear spoken (all the narration is her writing) with the child we see spelling out words in front of us, and that is a fiendishly hard thing to accomplish.

There are other areas where the film is one-dimensional, awkward and unsatisfying. An autocratic nurse tears down the poster Hathaway has put up for Annie--but we never see a response to her action. A child dies on the day of open house and there is consternation about where to put the body. His bed is furiously wheeled away (there are not that many places where you can hide an enormous hospital bed containing a dead patient), but the incident remains a story without an ending.

One of the film’s more interesting points, one that remains undeveloped, is the toll that obsessive devotion can take on personal relationships. There was (and is) a man whom the real therapist lives with--here he’s called David Lewis (played by Drew Forsythe). His function in the picture is to be us--to struggle with his emotions at the sight of Annie, to admit his resentment of her constant presence in their lives--first in Hathaway’s every waking thought, then in person when Hathaway begins to bring her to their home on weekends.

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Lewis is given staggering patience, or perhaps he is simply a not fully written character. (Actually, the real man, as described by Annie in her book, was both complex and extraordinarily compassionate: " . . . the first male I had known who did not find me ugly or funny. . . . He always treated me and the other kids as though we were completely normal. He never had any difficulty talking to us, unlike most people confronted with a mute.”) In the film, his treatment at the hands of the woman he supports emotionally 1,000% is so shabby it’s outrageous. This is material of consequence, but writers John Patterson and Chris Borthwick develop it anemically.

To much of the film’s audience, these are unimportant details. There is real triumph in this extraordinary story, and that may be enough.


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