This is a story of three women, and the differing reactions they have to motherhood. First we have a fifty-year old who gave birth at fourteen and gave the child up for adoption. The child grew up to be a successful, albeit detached, lawyer and one who has no intention of being a mother herself. The third woman cannot have children and we meet her in the early stage of the adoption process. In the course of the two hour running time of Mother and Child their situations will change.
It is Karen (Annette Bening) we see first. She’s a prickly type. Not a single day goes by when she doesn’t think about her daughter, writing her letters that are never sent, and dreaming about the life she may have carved out for herself. Instead of acting on her emotions and trying to locate the child — now thirty-five, of course — she instead stays home and tends to her sick mother. There is a third woman in the house, Sofia, the cleaner, who has a daughter that only serves to remind Karen of the daughter she gave away. Her bitterness spreads before her, snapping at anyone who crosses her path. One unfortunate victim is kind, gentle Paco (an excellent Jimmy Smits, who’da thunk?), who tries to get close to her but has a tough job on his hands.
Karen’s daughter, it is no big secret, is Elizabeth (Naomi Watts). We first see her being interviewed for a job at a law firm. In a neat encapsulation, she tells her boss (Samuel L. Jackson) of her past. Clearly determined and strong, she’s attractive to him both professionally and personally. They soon fall into bed; she’s the strong one, he the weak. She’s had a surgical operation to prevent pregnancy, another in a long line of cold, harsh decisions she’s made along the way. In a moment of devilment Karen begins a second, loveless relationship, this time with her seemingly happy (and decidedly married) neighbor. Watch as she leaves a little calling card for later discovery; the girl’s a minx.
The third woman, Lucy (Kerry Washington) cannot have children. Along with her husband Joseph, we see her first being interviewed by Catholic nun Sister Joanne with a view to adopting a child. One such birth-mother (played by Shareeka Epps) seems ready to give her child up but first insists on meeting the prospective A-parents. In a grueling series of interviews Lucy is forced to reveal her emotions, and the anguish seems too much for the couple to bear.
Mother and Child is a heavyweight melodrama, strong in every area. The characters are rich and complex, capable of multiple emotions. It’s an actor’s dream, and the opportunity was not wasted by its participants. Bening takes the meatiest role and may well be nominated for it. Her Karen has the sort of characteristics that voters love, full of anguish and angst. However, it is Watts that impresses most in a role that could possibly alienate. Elizabeth is detached by choice as a form of self-protection, and only enters into any sort of relationship once she’s assured of being the dominant partner. Her liaison with Jackson’s character rams the point home. He’s a successful, self-made man but is completely overawed by her strong will. Luckily for him, he’s also wise enough to know it.
The third strand, that of Lucy and the adoption, is almost an afterthought. It felt hurried and glossed over, and suffered because of it. In a complex movie with great development something had to give, and the trials of Lucy, Joseph and the demanding mother fell by the wayside. This is a shame, because Washington also showed real chops in the role, making more of it than perhaps it deserved.
Irrespective, writer/director Rodrigo Garcia has produced an emotional drama with strong performances all round, and this will enter into many people’s considerations at awards time. Bening may find that she’s competing against herself for best actress (she also looks set for a nomination for The Kids Are All Right too which, at time of this writing, I have not seen) which may split the vote. Watts may be entered in the Best Supporting Actress category, and thoroughly merits it.
Exploring powerful themes such as the ties that bind, loss and character metamorphosis, Mother and Child is an enjoyable, multiple-storyline movie that will be appreciated by mature audiences. You might not find a better female-centered drama this year.