In the earlier post, I had written about the path of rediscovery that led me to this effectively made television film, first aired on the popular CBS channel in the USA in the year 1989. Let me reiterate that it occupies a special place in my heart as if I was destined to watch it from the days of having viewed its advertising contents on the MGM channel where it aired in prime time. Need l say further that the now defunct channel brought me some of the best underrated gems I could ever hope to be privy to. Till date, I am indebted to its unique programming and library of heartwarmingly original screenplays. So as I write this, there is the feeling of humility rather than regret that the channel no longer exists. Some things come and go but the lingering sentiment is that of gratitude ; that is exactly how I feel in this case. BRIDGE TO SILENCE exemplifies all that and more as it’s relevant to our times, in probing mechanics of the adult world where unresolved differences find a breakthrough, suggesting that building bridges is the need of the hour and it’s never too late to at least try to forgive and forget, especially when it comes to filial and conjugal bonds. That is where the title becomes all encompassing as the fraught parent- child bond is so often caught in tangled passages of silences over issues big and small and so the silence here is more about relationships, the silence of loss, of incalculable pain, going much beyond the silence of the protagonist played by Marlee Matlin who cannot hear and hence has to communicate in her own way. Interestingly, this was her first speaking role and she used both sign language and her voice to capture her unraveling.
There is the viewpoint of her mother Marge played by the iconic Lee Remick, who is so recognizable as the afflicted mother of a Satanic child in classic film THE OMEN and as one half of an alcoholic couple in DAYS OF WINE AND ROSES with Jack Lemmon.
I like it that the screenplay doesn’t make bones about the fact that she is deeply flawed, cannot be read easily in terms of her motivations and as an actor she takes the risk of not earning our sympathies till the very end while performing wonderfully as a woman who wants to take the custody of her granddaughter Lisa (Allison Silva) after her own grieving daughter falls into an abyss of internalized pain following her beloved husband John’s death. We view Marge as an antithesis to her maternal core when she takes this decision but as a viewer, I could spot the simmering layers of unspoken wounds below her steely, one track mind. Trust me, there was no larger judgement on my part regarding her as I could grasp that she, as a mother and an individual per se, had her own tale to tell and chose to never showcase her reasons, preferring to present her ‘tough love’ side of things. I mean we know parents can be highly unreasonable when it comes to their actions as they are as fundamentally predisposed to certain flaws of human nature, especially if guilt is lodged deep within. So I felt that as insensitive and heartless she seems, we will find a moment of closure and acceptance on her part, which is there in the touching climax.
Yes, she finds it hard to accept Peggy perhaps with her condition but a mother’s guilt and repression doesn’t really override her love for her only child. Watch the full length and breadth of the screenplay to clear misunderstood embers of her perspectives. Two examples prove she is no ice maiden : when she visits the court and as the lawyer presents certain possibilities to her to put the case in her favour, manipulating her daughter’s image as she is ‘hearing impaired and an actress’ , ‘ angry, mentally unstable and hence irresponsible’ she walks out in horror and doesn’t pursue the custody case. Her expressions put her dilemma to the forefront. At another as Peggy chases her down, out of her home, she doesn’t retaliate as she knows her daughter is in a state of shock and anger as she has lost the love of her life in her husband John. There are multiple instances where concern is written all over her countenance and again the fraught relationship is where two individuals pitch their febrile emotional states. There are no rights or wrongs in simplistic terms here. That’s how real life is. There is this beautiful image of John’s blue shirt that Peg keeps as a souvenir and it is a physical symbol of how loss affects our souls.
A lesser script would have stuck at this ugly imbroglio of family members pitted at the court of law. Thankfully, the script avoids doing that and gives everyone a chance to air their thoughts and say it as it is. So the fact that there’s no hypocrisy in them is a novelty in itself. Peggy is strong and independent and not a victim of her condition while others too embrace the truth of the matter following John’s untimely death and do not peddle merely a token brand of sympathy here.
A lifetime of tensions finds a single moment of conciliation then and as blood bonds run deep, the innate understanding of unsaid emotions makes both mother and daughter choose to heal. I know it sounds like wish fulfillment but given the limited running time of a cinematic work, we have to internalize certain points and going by the challenging and brave manner of delineating this contentious wrestling between these women, we know this breakthrough has been a long time coming. So that’s why I implore you to watch it to intricately move through the motions yourself as Karen Arthur, the director, guides it sensitively and with utmost realism. Ultimately, the complexity of human nature hasn’t been left to be portrayed through rose tinted glasses and I appreciate that.
Peggy is shown to share the passion and irrepressible joy of companionship with John, who too can’t hear and has built a successful career as an academic; this mutual sense of two people together is beautifully captured in the opening shots. Her bond with her daughter Lisa is as strong and as she cracks under the pressure of distance from her in her months of recuperation and pining for John, we look out for her and absolutely relate to her predicament. The scene where she reunites with Lisa at her maternal home and cannot control her emotions is beautifully structured, informing us that even her kindred cannot reconcile with her inner restlessness. You see, concern on all sides do not always find proper representation through how we behave and the unpredictable contours of adult humanity is traced in this one scene alone. In this scene and another brief one, veteran actor Pat Hamilton who plays Marge’s friend Betty too registers her presence.
This is a family that has riches and privilege to live in an idyllic lakeside home in Maine but just the fact that they are materially prosperous doesn’t skimp on their life scripts laden with present crises. I would say that the adorable Allison Silva as Lisa binds the family as grandma and mother both shower their unconditional love on her even as they have to knit the gulf in this innate bond of their own. The scenes where Marge swims with her in the lake and wishes her to be proficient as a swimmer and her admission of rekindling her desire for motherhood to Al, her husband and Peggy’s father, are salient sequences. If only life and the human mind had simple resolutions.
The men, apart from John who despite his brief appearance becomes an omnipotent figure partly because Matlin conveys her attachment to him even in his absence so powerfully as well as in the heartbreaking silences punctuating her state of mind, are level headed liaisons who give the ladies soccour and support which makes them model citizens since very few have the patience to actually commit to such challenging circumstances. Here they do just as in the real world. There is Josef Sommer as Al, who refuses to support Marge for the brief period of custody for Lisa she demands, going against the bond of twenty five married years and still retaining the integrity to not demonize her to others , knowing her inherent frailties and giving her the space to recover from her impulses, all the while standing like a rock to Peg.
In fact, his dignified silent observations, hope and tact is instrumental in bringing both ladies to the vocal point towards the climax, which is actually the possible second beginning for them. His belief in the unity of bonds is endearing, informed by his basic nature and age appropriate experience. He is the calming effect to the volatile tempers of his kindred which someone has to be within an unit. His performance here is an extension of his voice work as the older narrating thread of the author played by Peter Macnicol in Sophie’s Choice, another high point of Hollywood’s many humanistic works of art propelled by history.
Then there’s the winsome presence of Oscar nominee Michael O’ Keefe, who espouses the same qualities as John’s best friend Dan , also a theatre director and pillar to Peggy who is responsible for bringing her out of her slump. Note the sheer trust of their friendship when Peg moves in his living space for a while as a boarder upstairs and a particular bit by the lake in Maine where both bare their hearts to each other like always.
His delicate handling of the scene where he confesses once having feelings for Peg is bookended by his priority for the sanctity of friendship and Peggy’s own little outburst. It’s handled positively and with grace. Also when he carries Peg up the flight of stairs in her home after she unleashes her fury on Marge.
These are individuals of their word. Al and Dan’s conversations together too bring the sensitive world of hearing with intricacies of the other side. Their wisdom bridges many gaps.
Finally, there’s the finer point of the script in which by staging a production of THE GLASS MENAGERIE, parallels are placed as regards difficult dynamics of a family, the mother- daughter bond and the inner silences through which we insulate ourselves from a demanding society. The fact that Peggy plays Laura Wingfield is an approximation of the guilt, fear and uncertainty that subsumes her. The symbol of the glass unicorn and the reconciliation to truth after it breaks has connected with three generations and here too the integrity of the play is maintained as it espouses the knots of life itself, the difficult and complex knots we are only too eager to untangle. I think everybody ought to read this play and watch one rendition of it in this lifetime. I was lucky I had the opportunity to read it in undergraduate college years and it has remained arrested as a voice of consciousness for me. Also watch the scene in which Peggy rings in her daughter’s birthday with her best friends, in her absence.
In the play within the film, Anthony Natale makes a charmed appearance as Jim O’ Connor / Gentleman Caller with whom the unusually reticent Laura shares valuable moments of camaraderie.
It’s also beautiful how the actors, staging the play within their community theatre, enunciate the words silently while communicating with gestures and expressive mobility of performance and the dialogues are vocalised by Candace Brecker as Mary and her male colleague. It is novel and magical and not just within the niche of the community but overall,individually, that is.
The reunion between Marge and Peggy, who have cleared their heads now to actually communicate, is a feat of acceptance and articulation. Marge lets us know that Peg had gone deaf due to an illness after birth and she couldn’t forgive herself as a mother for sort of betraying her responsibility when actually it was fated. This burden has been her curse and hence she has been distant, seeming cold and indifferent when in actuality she is a broken shell of a woman, unable to suppress her complexes or express the depth of her love as a mother. A lot of regrets and realities of being are addressed. So when the lights are dimmed and curtains close, we leave them with hopes of a better future as blood bonds somehow thrive even after the worst has come visiting us.
BRIDGE TO SILENCE reminded me of my favourite film, the Indian classic BLACK, in turn updating Helen Keller’s imprint for the modern age and its emphasis on family and individual enlightenment. Here Peggy has gone beyond the training and challenges and after adjusting to the rhythms of the world, awakens personally in the face of universal grief and loss. So again, BRIDGE TO SILENCE is particular and universal. The act of grieving is a private, insular one by right but some people take on the role of extended family to help us cope. The world of kindred cuts through the silences. So in the scene where Marge climbs up the staircase to Peggy’s room, we see her resting on the bed and she hears nothing until the sight of her mother and her touch registers . It made me realize how hard and many a times dangerous can this be. How the tactile world is so important. But Peggy perseveres and that’s her gift. This film never italicizes sore points of her present state in the narrative for effect.
That said, on the technical front, visual transference on an emotional level works in mysterious ways. I believe filmmaking can elicit emotional responses in a manner that every element coheres.
The way cinematographer Tom Neuwirth frames scenes is admirable. The yellow lighting reflecting outdoor sunshine and via indoor bulbs seems to confirm a comfortable cocoon in which even the latent humanity of people is unspooled; a typical congeniality of the eighties – nineties epoch.
Props also to production designer Mayling Cheng, music by Fred Karlin, costumes by Juul Haalmeyer and the editing by Laurel Ladevich, so pivotal in the sequences around the play within the film. The casting by Victoria Burrows is perfect.
In short, watch BRIDGE TO SILENCE to experience the compassion and sensitivity of people and their talents. As I titled this post, it’s the voice of consciousness.
I conclude this post with pictures of Peggy and John together. This was the most beautiful pairing.