Deborah Ross

Why do movies always have to bash the ‘burbs?

Mothers' Instinct is a delicious new melodrama but annoyingly it indulges in all the old clichés about suburban life

Anne Hathaway as Céline, who gives off Jackie Kennedy vibes, in Mothers’ Instinct

Mothers’ Instinct is a psychological thriller starring Anne Hathaway and Jessica Chastain and it is one of those over-ripe, camp melodramas that, back in the day, would have almost certainly starred Joan Crawford and Bette Davis. Or Tippi Hedren and Kim Novak, if we are going to be Hitchcockian about it. Either way, it’s a face-off between two world-class actresses and while it throws plausibility to the winds at the end, it is a delicious ride. And I’ve saved the best news for last: it’s all done and dusted in 95 minutes. Not an ounce of fat here.

It is directed by Benoît Delhomme and is a remake of Olivier Masset-Depasse’s 2018 French-language film which, in turn, is an adaptation of the novel by Barbara Abel. Set in the 1960s, Chastain and Hathaway play Alice and Céline, neighbours in an American suburb who have, over the years, become best friends while their eight-year-old sons, Theo (Eamon Patrick O’Connell) and Max (Baylen D. Bielitz), have grown up together like brothers. While Alice might have some reservations about giving up everything to become a wife and mother – she used to be a journalist; it is always a journalist, never a butcher – life seems picture perfect. The clapboard houses are beautiful and airy, the gardens are meticulous, gleaming turquoise cars are parked in the driveways and so on, you know the drill. And you know, too, that something bad is about to happen – if only because cinema always has it in for the ’burbs.

The bad thing happens almost immediately and because it’s been freely mentioned elsewhere and is the starting point of the narrative, I’ll tell you what it is: Max falls from the balcony of his house and dies. Alice sees it all unfold from her back garden and races to save him but doesn’t make it in time. Does Céline believe she’s to blame?

The grief is appalling, and well-handled. Then anxiety, distrust and suspicion begin to escalate. Is Céline punishing Alice? Or is Alice imagining it? Alice, we learn, spent time in a psychiatric institution, so is she paranoid? Alice is the nervier while Céline, who gives off Jackie Kennedy vibes, is more in control, but maliciously so? There are worrying episodes concerning granny’s heart pills and the cookies Theo mustn’t go near due to a severe nut allergy. (Ah, Chekhov, I see you have brought your gun…) Delhomme keeps the film taut and tight, ramping up the tension with agitated close-ups that are extremely close up (I saw their pores. I didn’t know Hollywood actresses had pores. Hand on heart, I thought they lived and died poreless). The production design is immaculate, as is the costuming – the clothes are, truly, to die for – and the drama is steered, for the most part, with convincing psychological realism.

Chastain and Hathaway bring depth and heft to their characters yet at the same time ensure they remain unreadable, which adds to the fun of trying work out who is genuine and who is being deceptive. It keeps you guessing until the third act where it erupts into full-on Fatal Attraction-style shenanigans. But can we mind too much when it does at least provide a proper ending?

The movie doesn’t even pretend to have anything to say about parental bereavement, or repressed feelings, or Stepfordy wives. Its purpose is purely to entertain and it does that nicely enough, without outstaying its welcome. My only grumbles are that the husbands (played by Josh Charles and Anders Danielsen Lie) are terribly generic and all the old clichés about suburban life are indulged, which I find quite annoying. I grew up in a suburb and there were no dark traumas – although I did once miss an episode of The Good Life. So there was that.

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