Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Mother and child - The loss of Motherhood

What are the words that would best describe the bond between a mother and her child? Primal, everlasting, no greater love or as in the case of this movie, no greater regret at its loss. Written and directed by Rodrigo Garcia, 'Mother and Child' focuses on the subject of adoption and plays it from three viewpoints, the birth mother, the child and finally the adoptive parent. We witness three stories running parallel till they all tie up at the climax.

Karen (Annette Bening) is the mother, who at the age of 14 gave birth to a girl she gave up for adoption. She has been haunted for the last 37 years by this decision of hers. Regret is what she has lived her entire adulthood with, making her a bitter, difficult (in her own words) woman who has no room for new relations in her life. She works as a physical therapist and is a caregiver to her ailing mother at home. In her spare moments, she writes letters to that daughter she never quite became a mother to.

Elizabeth (Naomi Watts) plays that daughter. She is a high profile lawyer, and successful achiever who has no room in her life for relationships. You dont form any ties, you dont have any expectations to be burdened with, is her stance on the matter. She has no relation with her adoptive parents. We can see in her the bitterness that might follow a child who has been given up, for life. The anger against the mother who abandoned her, has molded her into the cold, unsympathetic person she is. 

Running parallel, is a separate tale of a young African American couple who have been trying to conceive for years and now turn to adoption as their only option at being parents. Lucy (Kerry Washington) is especially aggressive in her quest. Her husband though supportive of Lucy's decision, has doubts of his own. They find a potential birth mother in Ray (Shareeka Epps ), who has her own methods of deciding a good adoptive family for her unborn child.

The movie plays out the lives of these three characters. Karen finds an understanding companion in Paco (Jimmy Smits), her new coworker. Her relationship with her daily help and the help's daughter is explored as well. The usually distrustful, bottled up Karen finally finds an outlet to that grief she has held onto for life. Elizabeth starts an affair with her boss Paul (Samuel L. Jackson), a much older widower with grown children. While he thinks of her as his girlfriend, she defines him to be her lover, someone she has sex with, no strings attached. On the side she plays with the affections of her married neighbor, whose seemingly naive wife is pregnant. The men in the movie, though wonderful, are there to lend support and a sympathetic shoulder to the women who drive the show.

This movie, for most its playing time, peeks into the world of adoption, the loss of the most primal bond, the repercussions it may have on the lives of the people separated. Karen never forgave herself this one mistake, though given her age it may have been the only choice she had. We find the effects of that decision decades later in her grown daughter as well, who probably mistrusts any relationship and is unable to form a lasting bond with anyone. We are then exposed to a seemingly unrelated third face through the character of a potential adoptive parent, whose want of a baby that nature has denied her, makes her angle the very world we have witnessed through Karen and Elizabeth.

The characters are fleshed out wonderfully and inhabited by great actors who bloom in the presence of good material. Bening and Watts, who have managed to balance Hollywood biggies with serious performance oriented cinema in the past, are exquisite, in characters where a lot of the action is happening below the surface, the process is internal. Their faces mirror their emotions with heartfelt accuracy. Watch for watt's expressions when all that she believes in is about to be proved false, the transformation that her Elizabeth goes through. Bening is especially brilliant in her break down scene on being told a truth about her mother by her maid. Subtlety is key to the performances and each actor achieves that important feat with the small nuances in their body language and expressions telling us far more than reams of dialogue.

Director Rodrigo Garcia bring us the tale of a relationship that is at once pure and simple as is mysterious. What makes one a mother? Is it the process of giving birth or the hands that nurture? Is it the time spent in the womb that forms such a bond the cutting of the cord can never quite severe or can a separate set of hands guiding that child through life form an equally strong bond? I have known plenty of cases where the bond between the adoptive parents and the child is so strong, it erases any sense of abandonment in the child. But no matter how secure, I am sure people do wonder, what happened that my mother had to give me up. For the birth mother, there will always be that question, where is my child.

'Mother and Child' makes for an unflinching study on the effects of adoption, its many perils no matter how compassionate the act is and Garcia gets it right, well almost. Where the movie meanders into cliched territory is in the last quarter of its act. The intertwining of the three stories, conveniently tying up all the threads, leaving behind no loose ends and the heap of coincidences showered upon the plot at once turns it from a heart rendering study of characters, each with their own crosses to bear, into another implausibly cliched Hollywood fare. It was heartbreaking to see such an ending. When do things ever tie up so neatly in life?

However, I do recommend you explore this movie for the emotional ride it offers for three quarters of its length. And some may even like the tidy ending. Myself, not so much. Real life is rarely that simple. That said, the characters resonated in their pain, their regrets and their loss. It made me look at my child sitting next to me and send out a silent prayer into the universe, at being blessed to bear her and now having the privilege of rearing her. Such a common occurrence for most women, but this movie made me get how special this truly is. And I shall cherish the feeling.

Available on DVD and Netflix Instant Play
Originally released in 2009

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