In A Test of Love, Jessica Hathaway (Angela Punch McGregor) takes a job as a psychiatrist's assistant in Melbourne's Brentwood Hospital, a state-run institution charged with the care of 160 severely handicapped children. She is shocked by the mechanical and depersonalized treatment given these youngsters. Jessica immediately institutes a program of play therapy and uses newly discovered funds to brighten up the drab environment. She becomes very close to 13-year-old Annie O'Farrell (Tina Arhondis), a cerebral palsy victim confined to Brentwood since the age of three.
Convinced that Annie is not retarded, Jessica teaches her to communicate by pointing to letters on an alphabet board. The more progress she makes with Annie, the more trouble Jessica encounters from all sides. Her superior Vera is threatened by her accomplishments; Brentwood's administrator is willing to accept the cosmetic changes Jessica makes to the hospital's appearance but views her work with patience as a rejection of the "warehouse philosophy" reflected by the institution. David (Drew Forsythe), Jessica's boyfriend, finds himself shut out as she becomes obsessed with her work.
One of the most commendable aspects of A Test of Love is its refusal to sentimentalize the lead characters. Although Jessica is truly heroic, her crusade to free Annie from the institution is not all brightness and light. Often she displays the character flaws of a self-righteous zealot. Annie's struggle to reclaim her dignity and to find a place where she can develop her intellectual abilities is inspiring, but first she has to cast aside the anger and bitterness which impede her quest for freedom. And David, although exemplary as a lover, must overcome his prejudice against disabled people. All of these elements come into focus during the last part of the film when Annie's requests to leave Brentwood is considered by a judge.
A Test of Love won the 1984 Australian Film Institute Awards for Best Film and Best Actress, both highly deserved. The book on which it is based Annie's Coming Out by Rosemary Crossley and Anne McDonald is available as a Penguin paperback.