Quite why Rodrigo García’s latest film, Mother and Child, has taken so long to arrive on British shores is anyone’s guess. Having premiered to a strong reception at the Sundance Film Festival 2 years ago and just about everywhere else since, we’re pretty much the last country to get our mitts on it, all the more vexing given how worthy it actually is. Why any studio would want to leave a star-studded, superbly-acted film like this on the shelf for so long is totally baffling.
Mother and Child is a film entirely concerned with attachments, about how they – both in abundance and in absence – shape who we are; Karen (Annette Bening) cares for her indifferent, ill mother though a tragic past, in which Karen fell pregnant at 14 years old and had to give the baby up, stands between their bond. The baby, now a 37-year old woman named Elizabeth (Naomi Watts), is a tough go-getter who, having been adopted and abandoned, has had to make her own way in the world. Meanwhile, Lucy (Kerry Washington) and Joseph (David Ramsey) desperately seek a baby to adopt, as Lucy is unable to give Joseph a child.
Right from its opening moments, this is a film which reminds us of how important to our life our origins are; Elizabeth, at a job interview, is asked about her background, and it’s an undeniably awkward situation, moreover one in which we might either judge or feel insincerely sympathetic or piteous towards her. Elizabeth’s upbringing free of permanent parental figures very much shapes her staunch independence, a stance she is led to challenge throughout the film as she embarks on an affair with her charming, older boss, Paul (Samuel L. Jackson).
What you get here is a forceful smattering of perspectives – very deliberately so – with pessimistic mothers facing off against optimistic daughters, but what about those daughters who are now themselves mothers, perhaps terrible ones at that? It creates an interesting moral conflict for Bening’s Karen, driven to locate her daughter yet positively unable to function as a loving one herself. Watts’ Elizabeth, meanwhile, craves the control she lacked in her beginnings of this world; she chooses to dominate through sexual confidence and destructive aggression, with consequences which can be anticipated though are no less poetic or resonant as a result.
It’s certainly a slow burn but never less than intriguing; the measured performances help offer several probing glimpses into these lives while scenes never linger too long. Garcia’s humanist quality as a craftsman, which made him such a dab hand on shows such as Six Feet Under, makes an interesting case for how people attempt to assuage their various guilts and hang-ups, usually an ill feeling stemming from a failure to connect with another person.
His investigation into the human spirit digs deeper as the film progresses, and though the temporal leap of several months later on seems a bit jarring at first given how much has changed, it is ultimately a deft stroke of dramatic economy, trimming any trace of fat as it bounds along. There’s plenty to resonate with viewers as the strands begin to find some sort of resolve, even if often in upsetting, occasionally overly melodramatic ways. How everything connects, though, is gratifying, and benefits from not feeling overly forced as has plagued many anthology films which have attempted to replicate the brilliant Amores Perros-esque intersecting-narrative device. While it’s a tough climax to watch in many respects, it escapes the maligned “misery porn” label because it’s imbued with plenty of genuine, affecting humanity to see it through to the end.
Performances throughout help the film no end; Jackson and Watts share interesting and unconventional chemistry, resulting in a few of the film’s lighter moments as well as most of its more upsetting ones, but the heft of the dramatic meat rests squarely with Bening. As a woman trying to at once cope with a mother who is quickly fading away to the pangs of old age, while also attempting to make peace with a past mistake and hold down a relationship, Karen has a lot on her plate, and Bening, looking more weathered and disgruntled than usual, is the film’s difficult, yet hopeful emotional core.
Mother and Child reminds us how important the notion of lineage – of finding a discernible path through life that doesn’t just begin and end with ourselves – is to our personal identity, and the decisions we make in life. Director Garcia renders a few moments slightly overblown – thanks largely to the occasionally bombastic score – yet on the whole, this is an expertly-acted, dramatically riveting piece of work.
Mother and Child is out now in UK cinemas.
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