Annette Bening plays Karen, a woman living with her crotchety elderly mother, who still has regrets about being made to give up her daughter for adoption at the age of 14. This regret has been eating away at her for years leaving her bitter and waspishly defensive, and, despite the good-natured advances of new co-worker (Jimmy Smitts), she’s brusque and rude.
Her daughter, now 37, is Elizabeth (Naomi Watts), a successful but selfish lawyer who displays not-so-subtle hints that her adoption has sculpted her outlook – she lives alone, has no children and is fiercely professional. She begins a relationship with her new boss (Samuel L. Jackson) and he seems attracted to her precisely because she’s so spirited. She also has a viciously cruel streak and delights in seducing her next door neighbour before planting her underwear amongst his pregnant wife’s clothes.
As the two strands unfold, the parallels between them become clearer. A line often repeated is, “it’s not the blood that matters but the amount of time spent which counts”. That’s something that’s frequently questioned: nurture vs. nature. Is the bitterness that both women feel the result of a genetic disposition or is it largely because of their experiences? Either way, the message of Rodrigo Garcia’s film seems to be that adoption is a bad thing.
In a third strand, infertile couple Lucy (Kerry Washington) and Joseph (David Ramsey) are looking to adopt a baby hoping that it will fill their need to be parents but are subjected to a merciless grilling by the expectant mother.
The performances are uniformly excellent particularly from Bening who displays the steel edge that she had in The Kids Are All Right. Sadly, with three strands competing for screen time, she’s not given enough space to develop the role. Watts is also good – an ice-cold career woman who knows what she wants, and Samuel L Jackson delivers a quietly subtle turn which is all the more powerful for its restraint.
For the first two thirds Mother And Child is a convincing and complex portrayal of family relations but it all goes horribly wrong in its final third, where characters undergo miraculous 180 degree reversals. The dark streak revealed in Elizabeth is left conspicuously unexplored and she drops her hardened resolve to reveal an unconvincing gooey interior. Karen also undergoes an abrupt transformation and warms to her housekeeper’s child despite previously thinking her nothing more than a biscuit-thieving nuisance.
These moments of epiphany are framed by a series of contrived plot devices (the worst of which sees Elizabeth ridiculously confessing her thoughts to a conveniently placed blind girl).
Clunky final section aside, Garcia’s film also seems curiously intent on peddling a view that adoption is necessarily a bad thing, where the idea that a woman could give up her baby seen as a repugnant moral crime. Well acted and initially well set-up, Mother And Child’s ending is a hollow shell and the film is disappointingly one-sided.