Rodrigo García, former cinematographer and the son of Gabriel García Márquez, made his debut as writer-director in 1999. The film was Things You Can Tell Just By Looking at Her and it earned him the Un Certain Regard award at the 53rd Cannes Film Festival. Despite the plaudits it was never picked up for theatrical distribution in the US and instead debuted on the Showtime cable channel. In some respects it made sense as García’s style feels very much at home on the small screen. Things You Can Tell... was an actor’s film, driven by monologues and long takes as it related five separate, but ultimately intertwined tales. Each revolved around one of its female characters, giving the stars - Glenn Close, Holly Hunter and Cameron Diaz (playing a blind woman) amongst them - plenty of opportunity to display their talents.
Since his debut García has continued along the same path, with each of his subsequent features utilising this multi-strand structure and focussing heavily on the female sex. Ten Tiny Love Stories was, quite literally, a collection of ten monologues, whilst Nine Lives offered up a series of vignettes constructed solely from long takes. Meanwhile, García was also serving as a director-for-hire on a number of major television series and, in-between the features, would helm episodes of The Sopranos, Six Feet Under, Big Love and Carnivàle. The approach of his film work was fully realised on the small screen with In Treatment for HBO. The structure was such that each season would be made up of a number of episodes per week over a seven- or nine-week period. Each episode was devoted to a particular character over a single session with their psychotherapist, in other words heavy on the dialogue and a godsend of a role for the performer. Whilst his latest film Albert Nobbs may change things (it reaches British cinema screens in April), In Treatment is the work for which the writer-director is currently best known.
Mother and Child was feature number five for García (following the 2008 thriller Passengers) and is finally making its way to DVD in the UK this month. It initially premiered at the 2009 Telluride Film Festival before going on a limited release in the States the following year, thus falling between the second and third seasons of In Treatment. A British distributor didn’t come calling until much later with a belated, and brief, theatrical run arriving in January of this year. Buyers, it would appear, have some kind of issue unless there’s a high concept idea in play. Passengers was a mystery-thriller centred on a group of plane crash survivors, whilst Albert Nobbs concerns itself with woman who cross-dresses in order to gain work as a butler in turn-of-the-century Ireland. The likes of Things You Can Tell..., Nine Lives and Mother and Child may appeal to the actor, but does that translate to a general audience?
The focus in this instance is made fully apparent by the title. This is a film about motherhood as presented through the lives of three individual women who nonetheless find their fates intertwined. Annette Bening plays a nurse who, 37 years, became pregnant at the age of 14 and gave up her daughter for adoption. We learn soon enough that she has grown up to become Naomi Watts’ character, a lawyer who is about to begin affairs with both the boss at her new firm (Samuel L. Jackson) and her new neighbour (Mark Blucas). The third woman is played by Kerry Washington. Married but unable to conceive, she is currently going through the rigorous processes of adoption. Her primary hope is the unborn daughter of a young teenager (Shareeka Epps) who is prone to rejecting potential families.
For Bening, Watts and Washington, these are all extremely meaty roles. Each gets a number of big scenes and each gets their fare share of the dialogue. García’s films have a tendency towards theatricality and Mother and Child is no different. He constructs his scenes so that the opportunity for monologue is optimal - indeed, Watts’ first scene is a job interview in which she fully opens up, practically uninterrupted, to Jackson. It’s shameless character exposition, and not solely the domain of the three leads. A young blind girl befriended by Watts similarly plunges into pages of dialogue upon introduction. And yet the men, as has been the case in the majority of García’s features, are kept mostly at bay. Certainly, the likes of Jackson, Blucas, Jimmy Smits and David Morse are provided with enough to allow for some solid turns (it’s especially pleasing to see Jackson momentarily subdued for a movie), though each remains on the periphery lest they steal any of that spotlight.
This theatricality, in and of itself, isn’t a particularly bad thing. After all, it does allow for some fine performances. Yet García has a habit of only focussing on the ‘bad’ emotions as it were. There is very little humour in his films; everyone is either angry, repressed or both. Interestingly, most of the men in Mother and Child come across as level-headed, but, as said, he’s not particularly concerned with them. It’s the confrontations and the arguments that get his keyboard going: Bening arguing with the maid shortly after her own mother has died; Watts’ brittle encounter with her gynaecologist; the first scene between Washington and Epps, and so on. After a while it can become wearing and we long for even a momentary burst of light or colour into proceedings. Consequently, the chemistry between the characters also suffers making the affair between Watts and Jackson, or that which develops between Bening and Smits, appear cold to the point where we never believe in them.
You could argue that this lack of warmth only points up Mother and Child’s unflinching, candid nature. It’s highlighted by a couple of excruciating sex scenes or the occasional use of strong language, both of which seem to be telling the audience that, yes, they are watching a mature film: a piece of adult entertainment. But ultimately it’s also a little too one-note to have the desired effect. There is no doubting that Mother and Child has its qualities - particularly from a performance point of view - it’s just a shame that come in such heavy packaging.
Mother and Child makes its debut on the UK home video market on March the 12th in both DVD and Blu-ray editions. For review purposes Verve have supplied a DVD screener and so it is this version under review. In terms of presentation the film is given a solid if unexceptional handling. It comes framed in a ratio of 1.78:1 and with a plain stereo soundtrack which downgrades the theatrical 5.1 offering. (I’ve no idea if the Blu-ray also provides stereo only.) Both remain spotless throughout as we would expect from such a recent production, though they do lack the level of clarity we might also hope for. The image suffers from the odd instance of haloing, whilst the soundtrack is never quite as crisp as it should be - if García has gone for a heavy score/monologue combination then you may find yourself, as I did, adjusting the volume momentarily. There are no optional subtitles, English or otherwise. The extras are a cursory affair: a 16-minute featurette that never moves beyond its EPK nature and a trailer.
Rodrigo García's 2009 features puts in a late appearance.