Sunday, May 9, 2010

Mother and Child

Rodrigo Garcia, the director of this film, is an undisputed genius at crafting the unexpected. There is no way in which one could have second-guessed this complex narrative of a mother and daughter, separated at birth, who both struggle with the damage done to each of them. It is a narrative of loss. It unfolds slowly, uncompromisingly, deftly. The viewer gets drawn into the complex disentanglement of three separate sets of lives, all of whom are linked to each other.

The film opens with with two 14-year-olds kissing. The scene fades into an unplanned pregnancy - leads to a birth - a glance at the child by her mother before it is taken away for immediate adoption.

The rest of the action takes place 37 years later, when the audience starts on a journey of discovery which has as its basis the terrible effect of this event on the two women. Annette Bening's Karen, the mother, lives a sterile life. She hasn’t married and cares for her ailing mother (Eileen Ryan). There is a wall of silence between these two women. They are unable to communicate with each other. They are unable and emotionally ill-equipped to deal with each other’s pain. Karen's mother relates better to her home helf than she does to her daughter. In turn, Karen’s interaction with others is equally awkward and lacking in emotion. She is damaged and one learns that the source of the damage is the child she was forced to give up by her mother and whom she writes to regularly, imagines, but makes no effort to seek out.

Naomi Watts' Elizabeth has overlaid her pain with high quality legal work. She is unable to relate emotionally to men and uses them mercilessly through risky and emotionless sex. She is fiercely independent but she is something of a drifter. But she returns, several times, in her roaming to the town in which she was born.

A third storyline follows another unwanted pregnancy and an adoption process. Kerry Washington's Lucy in unable to have children with her husband (David Ramsey) and they seek a child through a Catholic adoption agency, to meet a young prospective mother who, though willing to give up the baby, is extremely demanding in terms of what kind of family she wants for her baby. The interplay of power and helplessness in this narrative is almost frightening. On the one hand there is the need of Lucy, both to satisfy the needs of their marriage, and the apparent (somewhat ruthless) needs of the expectant mother, to dominate by means of the trump which which she holds over them.

Elizabeth, on the other hand, as well as her birth-mother, Karen, have their own issues of power. Neither has sought the other out, even though, for both, this could have meant resolution. When they eventually do, neither of them can claim any victory.

A gentle Jimmy Smits, is attracted to Karen but her response to him is almost violent rejection. When her mother dies, she is able to give in to his attention and give herself up to it. There is an interesting sub-text regarding God, and religion throughout the piece. It is a Catholic Adoption Agency which keeps the records of the adoptions. The nun who forms the centrepiece of connection is kind and gentle and humane. But it is it also the same agency which is the cause of botching critical connections between the players. The Jimmy Smits character admits to not believing in God, but his over-religious daughter describes him as the “kindest man alive”.

Lucy is interrogated ruthlessly by the prospective birth-mother on her religious beliefs. When she admits to her that she is an atheist, she believes that she has lost all hope of winning the birth-mother over. Only shortly afterwards to discover that the mother is convinced by her honesty.

Elizabeth gets sexually involved with her boss, played by Samuel L. Jackson, at a Los Angeles law firm. The relationship is curiously ambivalent and nothing one might expect. There is an age difference between the two of them, which is simply there – never noted or even acknowledged by anyone. But it is there – at the height of him achieving orgasm – Elizabeth calls him an “old man”. He is black, she is white. This fairly significant issue is never mentioned by anyone. When there is a need for introduction, she introduces him to others as “her father” – without further comment. Later on, the issue becomes extremely important in her life – but again, utterly refreshingly, it is never mentioned.

The three narratives eventually collide. Not in an easy way and not in a way where there is necessarily any resolution. The characters remain their own individual selves. The connection is real, but circumstantial. It does not control any of them, but it is the drum-beat at the centre of their being.

What is so magnificent about this movie is that it is always understated. It tries to resolve nothing artificially. At the end, there is a peace. But it is a heart-wrenching, gut-aching peace of real life. It is the peace of a complex set of lives. It is the peace we go about making for ourselves – or not.

It is a magnificent piece of cinema. Utterly magnificent.

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