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Miracle Worker (1962), The

Olive Films // Unrated // October 31, 2017
List Price: $29.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Randy Miller III | posted November 8, 2017 | E-mail the Author

Based on the turbulent early relationship between tutor Anne Sullivan and her blind, deaf student Helen Keller (which was itself rooted in Keller's 1902 autobiography, The Story of My Life), Arthur Penn's The Miracle Worker (1962) runs a close second behind David Lynch's Eraserhead as "most terrifying film to watch if you're an expecting parent". Boasting two extremely committed performances by pre-Graduate Anne Bancroft (as Sullivan) and newcomer Patty Duke (Keller), as well as stylish black-and-white cinematography by Ernesto Caparrós (Naked City), it's an intense drama that follows Penn's 1959 play of the same name (incidentally, also written by William Gibson and starring Bancroft and Duke).

There's been no shortage of The Miracle Worker adaptations through the years in a variety of media, including a 1979 TV film (featuring Patty Duke as Annie Sullivan, interestingly enough) and a 2000 Disney version that's not quite as bad as you'd expect, but none have held up like Penn's. It's not a perfect film by any means: there are no shortage of pacing issues (especially the film's somewhat rushed third act and conclusion), but The Miracle Worker has so much working in its favor that it's an easy film to appreciate. I can't say "enjoy", of course: any film about an infant crippled by scarlet fever, unable to see or hear, prone to violent outbursts, and part of a Southern, God-fearing family isn't one that'll leave a smile on your face. Nor are its countless scenes where the infinitely patient Sullivan is slapped, scratched, bitten, and snarled at by Keller or, in one particularly gripping moment, when they trade blows and tear apart a dining room.

Yet The Miracle Worker remains a stunning and successful experience (both its source material and Penn's film) for the raw and unforgettable relationship between its two main characters. The "triumph over adversity" level here is staggeringly high but rooted deep in reality: like Ronald Harwood's underrated The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, The Miracle Worker feels more impactful when we know how much real people can overcome if they're stubborn enough (this goes for both teacher and student, obviously). But the real kicker is when Penn's film reminds us, in no uncertain terms, that hard work and determination beat a "miracle" any day of the week. It's immediately arresting and worth another visit every so often, but I wouldn't blame those who consider The Miracle Worker an unforgettable "once and done" experience.

Penn's film has had something of a spotty history on DVD; I know for sure that its was first released by MGM back in 2001, then possibly re-issued years later as what was likely the very same disc. Regardless, The Miracle Worker gets a long-overdue bump to Blu-ray courtesy of Olive Films (known mostly for their Paramount titles) but, while the stylish visuals are undoubtedly leaps and bounds ahead of MGM's old disc, there's not much else to get excited about here.

Presented in its original 1.66:1 aspect ratio, this 1080p transfer of The Miracle Worker looks quite nice with a few mild reservations. Image detail is generally strong with crisp textures, along with some modest depth thanks to a good amount of shadow detail. It's obviously sourced from a newer master (although dirt and debris are very much apparent at times), while the relatively high bitrate doesn't lead to any obvious compression artifacts. Nighttime sequences tend to be a little murky, while daylight and harshly-lit indoor scenes look better in direct comparison. There seems to have been a slight amount of digital noise reduction applied, as well as possible contrast boosting. Yet despite these modest drawbacks, the visuals are overall quite strong and represent an obvious upgrade over MGM's 2001 DVD edition.

DISCLAIMER: The still images and screen captures on this page are decorative and do not represent the Blu-ray under review.

The audio is presented in DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 (split mono) format, but it's more than a little lacking compared to the relatively crisp visuals. There's a persistent level of hiss along the way; it's easily ignored in many spots, but can be somewhat distracting in others. Fidelity is obviously compromised because of this, and it's hindered further due to the film's jarring quiet-loud dynamics and violent outbursts. I can't say whether or not this could be a source material issue, but there's obviously some room for improvement here. Luckily, optional English subtitles are included.

The interface includes separate options for playback and chapter selection (there are 8), with relatively quick loading time and minimal pre-menu distractions. This one-disc package arrives in a standard keepcase and includes poster-themed artwork and a promotional insert. Sadly, no bonus features have been included here...not even a trailer.

Intense and well-acted, Arthur Penn's The Miracle Worker remains a fine adaptation of great source material that's rooted deep in reality. The film undoubtedly has a few pacing issues (especially in its second half), yet its gripping performances and stylish visuals carry much of the weight. Sadly, Olive Film's Blu-ray doesn't offer much more than a decent 1080p transfer and optional English subtitles: the audio is somewhat flawed and, even worse, there's no bonus features for a film that has loads of history behind it. Due to its higher price point and low replay value, The Miracle Worker feels more like a try-before-you-buy disc than a solid blind buy (unless you're a die-hard fan, of course). Rent It.

Randy Miller III is an affable office monkey by day and film reviewer by night. He also does freelance design work and runs a website or two. In his free time, Randy also enjoys slacking off, juggling HD DVDs, and writing in third person.
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