Mothers’ Instinct review | An unsteady thriller saved by its leads

mothers instinct jessica chastain and anne hathaway
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Anne Hathaway and Jessica Chastain go toe to toe as neighbours thrown into an impossible position. Here’s our Mothers’ Instinct review.

Anne Hathaway is in her sixties era. Following on from her last outing, William Oldroyd’s pleasingly twisted Eileen, the star might just have found her new calling. Something about her fits the 1960s like a long satin glove; the flipped bob hairdo, dresses in block pastels and bright reds, strings of pearls destined to scatter dramatically down a flight of stairs.

Here Hathaway is reunited with her Interstellar co-star Jessica Chastain in a pairing that makes you wish Christopher Nolan hadn’t separated them with a wormhole and a bunch of timey-wimey stuff. The pair play neighbours and best friends Alice and Celyn, two very different women united by motherhood and a shared hedge, whose relationship descends into paranoia when one’s life is unravelled by tragedy in a remake of the 2018 Belgian thriller of the same name.

The central duo is certainly well cast. Chastain’s character is reserved where Hathaway is open, the former longing to return to her career as a journalist while her best friend is content looking after her idyllic suburban home. Their relationship feels both believable and fascinating to watch even while the film around them struggles to get into gear.

Because where Mothers’ Instinct promises, on one hand, a melodramatic romp through Hitchcockian cliché (it begins with an entertainingly camp, knife-shaped red herring) its delivery gets cut off at the knees by its insurmountably tragic subject matter. The result is a film which never quite decides whether the audience should be having fun or not. Paranoid thriller cliches bump against moments of well-performed pathos in a manner that feels more than a little jarring.

Things aren’t helped by Benoît Delhomme’s functional direction, which doesn’t do much to lift a script perhaps missing a bit of bite. Nods to the 1960 US political scene attempt to justify the jump from Brussels to American suburbia, but don’t feel completely developed. Our duo’s husbands have a spirited conversation about this young upstart called “John F Kennedy”, but only to show that neither likes Chastain’s character talking about politics. They could just as easily be talking about Nadine Dorries.

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The plight of the post-war housewife, too, feels underexplored beyond a light dusting. The central dynamic of a stay-at-home mum and someone who feels shackled by societal pressure almost forced into opposing roles should have been a slam-dunk of a story engine, but the film doesn’t seem completely sure what to do with it.

Still, Hathaway and Chastain have enough chemistry and natural charm that Mothers’ Instinct might well scratch an itch if you’re in desperate need of a vintage dress and a plot. Ultimately, though, it’s a film only a mother could love – from everyone else, it’ll have to settle for a “like”.

Mothers’ Instinct is in UK cinemas from 27th March.

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