There ought to be a law that says you can have either cancer or orphans in your manipulative weepie, but if you try to sneak in with both, some kind of klaxon goes off and you’re banned from making another film until your urine tests clean again. Really, though, the manipulation klaxon would be blaring pretty much non-stop for Bart Freundlich’s demented melodrama, which not only takes emotional blackmail as its central theme but seems to argue that it is a fine thing in the long run, because cancer. And orphans! But mainly cancer, because that happens to white people.
Certificate 12A 111m 46s
Director Bart Freundlich
Isabel Michelle Williams
Theresa Young Julianne Moore
Oscar Carlson Billy Crudup
Grace Carlson Abby Quinn
Jonathan Alex Esola
The poor Kolkata orphans who seem so cute in the swooping drone shot at the start of the film are mainly there, it turns out, to frame the incandescent virtue of Isabel (Michelle Williams), a barefoot American with a pixie haircut and a strong belief that she alone can save the sad children of this vaguely sketched-in but definitely non-Western locale. Her assumption is that these definitely non-Western children must surely perish without her personal American touch, yet go she must, to horrid old luxury New York, to collect a large donation from Theresa (the always watchable Julianne Moore), a wealthy businesswoman who has noticed her valiant orphan-whispering and wants to help.
When she arrives, and after some unintentionally funny culture-shock stuff reminiscent of Crocodile Dundee (1986), Isabel is invited to the lavish wedding of Theresa’s daughter Grace (Abby Quinn), only to find that her never-forgotten ex Oscar (Billy Crudup), the lost love of her life, is father of the bride. Learning that Grace is not Theresa’s biological daughter, but was a babe in Oscar’s arms when the couple first met, Isabel suddenly slaps her forehead and remembers that she and Oscar had a baby 20 years ago, who was put up for adoption just before Isabel left for India. Could 20-year-old Grace possibly be…? You bet she could, and that’s not the half of it: we haven’t even got to the cancer yet! Phew! It’s a good thing Isabel knows all about meditation and other definitely non-Western things.
Pause here to wipe the soap from your stinging eyes, and consider that this film is a remake of a 2006 Danish film (Susanne Bier’s Efter brylluppet), but with the sexes of the main characters reversed. In the original, the errant parent was the father, and the question of why he might not know he had a daughter answered itself; here, the film must go through convolutions to explain the situation, and we are left with the suspicion that Isabel has a peculiar hinterland that we are being asked to ignore. The adoption angle could have made for an interesting psychological study, but unfortunately there’s so much scenery to be chewed that there’s no time to develop any of the characters, including (most fatally) Isabel’s.
Instead, we are left with an uninflected depiction of a woman with an unsavoury white-saviour complex, which unfortunately the film seems not to question but to share. ‘Charity’ exists here to provide a convenient moral upgrade for grubby Western souls – if you can afford it. Meanwhile, the agency, even the identity, of the Indian characters is brusquely erased or diminished, swept away by white tears and the gigantic entitlement of both Isabel and Theresa. The film’s top-notch cast are let down badly enough by the clunking screenplay, but they are entirely defeated by the ethical vacuum at its core.