Life & Culture

Mothers’ Instinct review: A study in grief morphs into a thriller

Jessica Chastain is excellent but Anne Hathaway is stronger still


As manicured as their gardens: Anne Hathaway (left) and Jessica Chastain in Mothers’ Instinct

15A | ★★★★✩

No, not the mythical Jewish mother’s urge to feed and clothe her children on a daily basis against imminent famine and nuclear winter. Rather the title of director Benoît Delhomme’s film alludes to the psychosis that can grip a mother after the death of a child. Somewhat chauvenistically, I’d say, a father’s response is less complex here.

When this tragedy befalls Anne Hathaway’s Celine and her husband (Josh Charles), he goes off the rails in a predictable kind of way. Anger informs every aspect of his life. He is brimful of blame. His marriage dissolves in drink. Not so Celine. A period of gnashing of teeth and chewing of carpet (metaphorically speaking) is followed by a kind of well-adjusted acceptance. It is as if several stages of grief have been skated over.

Before the accident that changed everything, best friends Celine and Alice (Jessica Chastain) are living the mirror image of each other’s idyllic lives in 1960s American suburbia. The women are as manicured as their gardens, and each has a young son of the same age who are best friends and go to school together.

On the day Celine’s child stays at home because he is feeling unwell Alice spots him standing on the edge of her neighbour’s balcony, reaching for a birdhouse in a nearby tree. The panic to prevent the accident is a harrowing, time-slowing collision of individually blameless elements: the vacuum cleaner is too loud for Celine to hear Alice’s warnings, the garden hedge too thick for Alice to fight her way through to her neighbour’s side. But the scenes that follow are every parent’s nightmare and if you have children they take their toll. Life is lived in a deadening silence. Expressions of sorrow from Alice and her husband (Anders Danielsen Lie) are exactly the kind of inadequate condolences one imagines giving or receiving.

The film is, however, worth sticking with as this study in grief morphs into a thriller. Celine’s attempt to reignite her friendship with Alice is both innocent and sinister. Chastain is excellent as the mother who instinctively doubts her friend’s recovery is all that it seems. But Hathaway – whose returns to the genre arrives hot on the kitten heels of another 1960s-set film, Eileen – is stronger still, treading as she does a line of psychological ambiguity until her real intentions are revealed​.​

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