The lives of two teachers (Audrey Hepburn and Shirley MacLaine) are destroyed when one of their pupils (Karen Balkin) spreads a lie that they are lesbian lovers.
Released in 1961, it’s probably fair to call The Children’s Hour ahead of its time in terms of its attitudes towards homosexuality. Based on a play written by Lillian Hellman as early as 1934, it reveals the danger of homophobia and the way it can ruin lives. When the rumour gets out, the pupils’ parents rapidly take their children out of the school, leaving the two teachers shamed as criminals. The film can feel a little dated when the characters are defending themselves by denying the allegations of homosexuality, rather than pointing out that their sexuality is none of the pupils’ business. But this is just a result of the discriminatory laws, the likes of which we’re still rectifying 50 years on. Let’s not forget that more Tory MPs opposed gay marriage than supported it, or that the Minister for whatever she’s the Minister for these days Baroness Warsi opposed the repeal of Section 28 in her 2005 campaign literature, or that UKIP think homosexuality causes floods.
The two leads are wonderfully watchable, with Hepburn in full-on Princess Fruity from Event Horizon Crescent mode. The child actors are less impressive, but Karen Balkin is sufficiently brattish, as the most manipulative child since that one from The Omen. The music is often too melodramatic, but it’s through words, glances and lies that The Children’s Hour succeeds as an original and interesting drama. A nicely ambiguous tale about the power of a lie, its social conscience resonates today, at a time when 1 in 5 people still think it is unacceptable for a gay person to teach in a school. To quote the comedian Lenny Bruce on the suspension of gay teachers: “There wasn’t one incident reported where a kid came home and said, ‘today in school we had five minutes of geography and ten minutes of cocksucking.'” Then he got arrested.
The Children’s Hour is available free on YouTube.