Mother and Child is a drama centered around three women whose paths will cross and change them forever: Karen (Annette Bening) a reserved 50-year old nurse, who was forced to give up her daughter Elizabeth (Naomi Watts) for adoption 35 years ago; the daughter who's grown into a single-minded career woman; and Lucy (Kerry Washington), desperate to adopt a child of her own. A moving tale about forgiveness, the choices we make, the chances we miss, the opportunities we seize and the power of the unbreakable bond between a mother and child.

3
Extraordinary actors expose emotionally sterile yet complex characters.

Three women are at the center of this wrenching and difficult film and they all have one thing in common – they want a child. Still, this is not so much a movie about the joys of motherhood but the pain that comes with a powerful need that just won’t stop. That makes it sound too sombre, as if it were a sermon on the essentials of human existence or something and that would be wrong; the tone is more like a ferocious but classy soap opera but one with extraordinarily good acting and an emotional style absolutely rooted in lived experience.

The plot – about a trio of intersecting lives that criss-cross class, experience and status in modern Los Angeles – uses airport novel narrative techniques like last minute coincidence, and sudden shock reversals of fortune. Some US critics have condemned this strategy as corny and convenient, but I reckon that’s beside the point. Writer-director Rodrigo Garcia isn’t making a realistic film but a kind of film parable. The ending here will be magical for some to be sure; but getting to it is a trial of pain, self-reflection and life revelations.

What’s difficult about the movie are the three main characters; in a way they’re all hard, bitter women. One of the movie's great pleasures is watching how a more complete, complex and real person emerges as they come to understand the meaning of being a mother and a daughter.

Annette Benning is Karen who at 14, gave up Elizabeth (Naomi Watts). Karen doesn’t like or trust people. Then she meets a kind man called Paco (Jimmy Smits) and that changes everything. Elizabeth has grown up a successful lawyer; attractive and volatile, cool and calculating, she uses sex as a way to keep men and women at a distance. It’s never explained or defined but in her sudden fits of rage – often directed at near strangers – and promiscuity Elizabeth has all the signs of person suffering a profound personality disorder. She doesn’t want children and is not interested in motherhood. Then she falls pregnant. The child might belong to her boss Paul (Samuel Jackson). Moving in between this storyline seems a character that has no significance at all to Elizabeth and Karen; Lucy (Kerry Washingston) is black, middle-class and cannot have children. She wants to adopt but the birth mother Ray (Shareenka Epps) gives her such a bad time, the prospect of ultimate success often seems remote.

Shot in cool tones, Garcia’s camera alternately hugs and batters his performances. Sometimes the camera gets in so close it’s like an x-ray on the soul of his characters. At other times, Garcia sets the frame wide – emphasising the emotional sterility of the lives his three female leads must endure.

It seems a little mean to pick out a favourite performance in a picture like this – everyone is strong and true (Benning in particular bravely makes her self unattractive and not in the cosmetic sense, which is so routinely praised by critics, but in her attitude, her 'ugliness’, comes directly from her unhappiness). But I think it’s Naomi Watts who delivers the haunting character here; she is so brutal with people, so hard it should paralyse compassion, but it doesn’t. I think it’s because Garcia and Watts never let us forget Elizabeth is living in a world of loss. In a cinema full of glib ironists that kind of compassion for the hurt and the damaged is worthy of close attention.

Details

2 hours 6 min
In Cinemas 17 June 2010,
Wed, 10/20/2010 - 11

Genres