This isn’t going to be a long review, because I wasn’t able to get far into the movie. Two things I want to get out of the way up front are: first, I love Tim Lebbon’s books, and second, in terms of plot and cinematography, The Silence might very well be an excellent movie. I don’t know, because I wasn’t able to get past the “deaf” character’s actions. In other words, this review is about how poor representation ruined what might have otherwise been a good movie for me.
Nor is this review an attack on Ms. Kiernan Shipka or her talents as an actor. Ms. Shipka seemed to do well with the material she was given; however, it appears she wasn’t given much. I understand that she learned ASL for the role, but as I’ve stated in other posts, there is much more to being deaf than knowing sign language.
As with all my other posts from the deaf perspective, I also want to point out that this review is written from my perspective as a deaf person, which can and will differ greatly from those of the Deaf community, or from people with a different type of hearing loss. In other words, your mileage may vary, which is fine.
Viewing the movie as someone who loves horror films, I can say that my gripe with The Silence began before Shipka’s character, Ally, ever hit the screen. I’ve spoken of this particular issue in novels, and it’s no less annoying in a movie: the need to leap too fast into the action without any attempt to cultivate tension. The opening scene could have been a claustrophobic buildup of horror. Instead, it was delivered like an awkward prologue that was over so quickly, it felt like an aside.
Then we meet Ally, who tells us how smart she is because she learned to lip-read so fast after her accident … and I flinched, because that is not how it works. Even so, I gave the film a few more minutes, because I wanted to see how the story would explain that particular skill.
Essentially, Ally’s backstory is this: she was in a car accident with her grandparents three years earlier. Due to the traumatic head injury inflicted during the accident, Ally was rendered completely deaf. In addition to recovering from whatever other brain trauma she might have endured during the accident, Ally is now perfectly healthy, except she is deaf. In three years, she has learned ASL and how to lip-read and moves through the hearing world without the annoying dizziness, vertigo, or tinnitus that burdens the rest of us.
At no point are we led to believe that Ally moves in anything other than a world of silence. She doesn’t wear either hearing aids or a cochlear implant. This tells me, as a deaf person, that her hearing is completely gone, and due to whatever injury she sustained, assistive listening devices do not help her.
Within the first five minutes with Ally, we see her taunted from behind by a group of her high school classmates, who are actually acting like they’re twelve. That was just weird.
Immediately after Ally is taunted by her classmates, she walks down the middle of a street…
—let me pause here to say that deaf people, who can’t hear cars coming NEVER walk down the middle of any street without constantly looking over their shoulders—
…her boyfriend approaches her from behind and puts his hands over her eyes.
And I almost shut the movie down then, because that is the most horrible thing you can do to a deaf person: sneak up on them from behind. Seriously, you scare the crap out of deaf people when you do that. It’s horrible. Don’t do it. Ever.
But this is Ally’s boyfriend, who will soon be getting his drivers’ license, and Ally informs him that her parents will probably never let her drive because she’s deaf …
Dear Ally’s parents and the producers of this movie,
Deaf people drive all the time and we’re probably safer drivers than hearing people, because we are paying attention with our eyes.
Then Ally arrives home and my nitpicking reaches monumental levels. The usual systems designed to help deaf people pinpoint noise (for example: doorbells, phones, fire alarms, or loud noises) are large bulky boxes that indicate why a light is flashing. They could have been there in the background and I just missed them, but after going to all the other lengths to show Ally’s deafness, the director doesn’t bother to show us that her home is equipped for a deaf person.
Ally’s family uses pidgin sign language to communicate. As a family having to adjust to a late-deafened child, it’s possible they’re doing the best they can. They also make asides that Ally can’t hear, and although unkind, I found this plausible as well.
Still, it bothered me that Ally follows conversations with ease. Even with lip-reading and signing, most deaf people are moving on a delay and the faster the topics change, the more frustrating communication becomes for the individual. Also, to lip-read with Ally’s accuracy, one needs to have some residual hearing.
Later that evening, Dad comes into her room and at one point, they forget to sign, but Ally has no trouble following the sudden topic shift, and that was it for me. I’d watched about all of the movie I could watch, because I realized from that point forward I would be doing nothing but critiquing Ally.
Those critiques turned into my biggest issue with The Silence. Whereas A Quiet Place presented a moment of ableism in the lack of captioning during the spoken parts between hearing characters, The Silence is the ableist viewpoint on full display. At no point did I believe that Ally was actually deaf, and if you can’t make me believe in your characters, then I’ll never buy into your story, no matter how good the film.
Frohock has intricately woven a unique reinterpretation of history. Eloquent prose accompanies a lyrical theme amid prewar tensions, enriching this imaginative historical fantasy. –starred review, Publishers Weekly
Where Oblivion Lives is available at Scuppernong Books | HarperCollins | IndieBound. You can find links to Amazon and B&N at the HarperCollins link. If you're an audiobook fan, we've got you covered: the audiobook is narrated by the talented Vikas Adam and is available from Audible.
A few people have asked if you have to read the novellas first in order to enjoy Where Oblivion Lives. The answer is no, BUT if you want to read them, you can find the Los Nefilim omnibus at HarperCollins, as well as links to the individual novellas right here.