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film criticism by maryann johanson | since 1997

Keira Knightley and Elisabeth Moss in ‘The Children’s Hour’ (West End): give it a miss

It’s hard to imagine that Lillian Hellman’s 1934 play The Children’s Hour was once banned in otherwise sophisticated cities — including London — for indecency, for hinting at homosexuality in ways that would be considered so tame today that we’d barely even take notice of it, were it not the crux around which the action of the play revolves. It’s equally hard to imagine that a play about the power of gossip and lies to destroy lives — something that remains true to this day, and isn’t likely to ever change, given the destructive urges of human nature — couldn’t be relevant today. Because Hour does turn on accusations of lesbianism between two women who run a girls’ school, and in such a way that rings hugely unlikely to modern sensibilities, it would seem that even retaining a setting that is now historical, some significance for modern audiences must be wrung from it. It might even seem inevitable that that “power of gossip and lies” theme would shine through no matter what.
It does not, however, in director Ian Rickson’s The Children’s Hour, which just opened in London’s West End. This 21st-century production might as well have been lifted whole from the 1930s, when suggestions of lesbianism alone were enough to shock and provoke: today, it feels dated and dry, with nothing to say to a 21st-century mindset. At the very least, there should be some passion between the two leads, played here by Keira Knightley and Elisabeth Moss: as two friends of long standing and partners in a venture that is already struggling, we should be able to appreciate their frustration and the strains on their relationship, as well as the strength of their friendship. But they don’t seem to truly feel the weight of the gossip and the lies, and so neither do we. The entire production feels clipped and stilted, as if, perhaps, Rickson made the conscious decision to replace emotion with a studied old-fashionedness. (Ellen Burstyn and Carol Kane don’t fare any better than their younger castmates, which suggests it is indeed Rickson’s direction that is at fault, and not the work of the talented actresses.) If so, it was a poor choice.

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