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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Peter Bradshaw

Mothers’ Instinct review – Anne Hathaway and Jessica Chastain in 60s-set operatic melodrama

A scene from Mothers' Instinct
‘Chastain has a clenched restraint, while Hathaway is operatic but callow’ … Mother’s Instinct. Photograph: Film PR handout Alyssa Longchamp/Alyssa Longchamp

Maybe a new Catfight of the Year Oscar has to be brought in to reward this hilariously unsubtle and increasingly ridiculous psycho-melodrama of the 1960s American suburbs starring Anne Hathaway and Jessica Chastain. Some kind of cult status must be on the way, with emote-along midnight screenings.

Mothers’ Instinct is written by Sarah Conradt and directed and shot by celebrated cinematographer Benoît Delhomme making his feature debut; it is partly based on the 2012 French-language thriller Derrière la haine (Behind the Hate) by Barbara Abel, and partly on a 2018 Belgian movie adaptation. Hathaway and Chastain play Celine and Alice respectively, two prosperous stay-at-home housewives giving it the full Betty Draper feminine mystique: they are friends with matching picture-perfect lives, each with an adored nine-year-old son, each with a sturdy commuter husband (played respectively by Josh Charles and Anders Danielsen Lie) and each with an awful buried trauma. But when tragedy strikes, it unlocks irrational suspicion and vengeful obsession.

The movie ends up with such wild absurdity that it’s difficult to recall the interesting and plausible touches of dysfunction and ambiguity that went into the opening scenes – particularly some business concerning a kid’s toy bunny. But when the curtain rises on the third act, it is time for some very ripe and silly overacting and homicidal machinations which are wince-making in the wrong way. Delhomme provides us with some creamy strings on the soundtrack which signal Hitchcockian dread, but without the wry touch of black humour with which Hitchcock could paradoxically make his thrillers so plausible.

The movie starts out very serious and shocking and concludes on a note of pure farce, though I have to say Chastain’s performance has a clenched restraint which is marginally more convincing than Hathaway’s operatic but callow displays of hurt and entitlement.

• Mothers’ Instinct is in UK cinemas from 27 March

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