Deborah Ross

Mixed blessings | 7 January 2012

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Firstly, my review of 2011, which I was going to do in photographs until I realised I didn’t take any, and then in animal thumbprints, but they are quite rubbish. My dog, for example, looks nothing like a dog. So I will spare you my review of last year — my giraffe is getting there, but still needs work — and, instead, will give you our first film of 2012, Mother and Child, which is terrifically acted and affecting in part, but also peculiarly pat and unsatisfying. If you haven’t yet seen The Artist, I would put that way, way, way ahead in the queue, and if you’ve yet to see it, I would further ask you this: something wrong with you? My recommendations not good enough for you all of a sudden? Tell you what, why don’t I just stay at home and work on my giraffe in future? Might as well.

Now, where were we, not that you deserve it? Oh, yes, Mother and Child, which is written and directed by Rodrigo Garcia and is, funnily enough, about mothers and children or, more precisely, three women who, in one way or another, long for and need a child. First, there is Annette Bening as Karen. Pregnant at 14, Karen was forced to give up her baby for adoption, but never forgave herself. She is now late middle-aged, bitter and lonely, lives with her elderly, nasty mother, and lashes out at anyone who tries to get through to her.

Another is Elizabeth (Naomi Watts), the grown-up daughter Karen has never met, and who is now a frosty, ruthless lawyer whose anger towards the birth mother who gave her up is, as we understand it, at the root of her aloof self-possession and sexual manipulation. She seduces the husband of her pregnant neighbour, then coolly leaves her panties in his wife’s underwear drawer. Nice. She embarks on an affair with her boss, Paul (Samuel L. Jackson). The third is Lucy (Kerry Washington), who is married yet infertile and obsessively desperate to adopt. Their lives do not become interlinked until the very end, although they do have one thing in common: Sister Joanne (Cherry Jones), a nun at the Catholic adoption bureau who is working on all their behalfs in various ways.

The direction is unflashy and straightforward, which allows the actors to absolutely sparkle. Don’t you love Annette Bening? If you don’t, you should. Her performance here covers a huge range, with much shading in between, as her character seeks to crawl out from under her regrets. Watts, meanwhile, displays a detached steeliness that is somehow quite riveting, and Jackson, playing deliciously against type, is subtle and sensitive. But the film itself never lives up to the performances and the first half, particularly, is conducted so methodically it all feels rather sedated and even dreary. I love an in-action film more than anything, but even I was thinking: come on, come on, let’s get on with it. Let’s get this show on the road. Some of us have thumbprint animals to practise.

It does pick up in the second half, when Elizabeth finds herself pregnant, and you will start to feel more involved at this point, and more curious as to how it all pans out, but this section, too, has its flaws. Most bizarrely, after all the work Garcia has put in laying down his characters, we see them perform some abrupt reverse-turns. Karen, for example, inexplicably softens.

There are one or two moments of genuine emotion. Lucy has her heart set on adopting a baby whose birth mother turns out to be a right piece of work, and Lucy’s distress is heartbreaking. But the ending, when all three stories converge? Disappointingly clichéd and sentimental and soapy, I’m afraid. I would also say that the meddling Catholic Church comes out of all this a lot better than it ought.

This is a film that sometimes works and sometimes doesn’t work, and is uneven in that way unlike, say, The Artist, which is a fully achieved joy. If you haven’t seen The Artist yet, I would further add this: you are not only an idiot, but also mad.