Child death fractures friendship in absorbing drama

Child death fractures friendship in absorbing drama Anne Hathaway and Jessica Chastain in Mothers' Instinct (2024).

The devil – and angel – is in the detail. Great movies come from moments. Mother’s Instinct (15A) is threaded together like a labyrinthine tapestry of ominous vignettes where every slight movement or gesture becomes charged with an opaque threat. It’s a horror film that plays out like a symphony. Stanley Kubrick would have known all about that.

When the 8-year-old Max dies in a tragic fall from the balcony of his house in suburban America in the 60s, the fatality causes ripples that extend through the lives not only of his parents Celine (Anne Hathaway) and Damien (Anders Danielson Lie) but also their close friends Alice (Jessica Chastain), her husband Simon (Josh Charles) and their son Theo, who was friends with Max.

Based on a Barbara Abel novel, it’s a reworking of a 2018 film directed exquisitely by Benoit Delhomme. He crafts a four-hander exploring these ripples in a manner that’s so clever you can’t help thinking of Alfred Hitchcock. The film is a slow-burning fuse where ostensibly negligible events acquire ponderous reverberations.

Celine is understandably inconsolable in the aftermath of Max’s death. She had a difficult birth with him and was informed after it that she wouldn’t be able to conceive again.

A series of events, not least the bonding of Celine with Theo, follow the tragedy. We get to a point where Alice, who saw Max about to fall and blames herself for not doing more to prevent him doing so, begins to suspect that Celine also blames her, and indeed wants to exact a kind of revenge on her. Is this paranoia on her part or the eponymous ‘mother’s instinct’?

Delhomme keeps us guessing until the last reel, building the tension to an almost unbearable degree as he heaps pregnant scenarios upon one another like building blocks leading to a catastrophic finale.

Who’s going to crack first – Alice or Celine? We find ourselves trying to ‘read’ their every expression for a sign of what it might tell us about them or what it might presage. Delhomme gives us a plethora of sumptuous close-ups that act like leisurely counterpoints to the thunderous climax.

The four leads in this incredible film give phenomenal performances. I hadn’t seen Charles or Danielson Lie before. I hope I do so again soon. We all know how brilliant Chastain and Hathaway can be. Here they excel even by their own formidable standards, making something out of nothing over and over again as they agonise about the traumatic events that sundered their friendship.

Don’t miss this film. It’s gorgeously shot as well as acted, calibrating the decline of a seemingly perfect quartet in leafy suburbia in a manner that puts one in mind of everyone from Norman Rockwell to John Updike.

Everything is perfect – the houses, the dresses, the parties – until a snake enters the Garden of Eden, causing everyone’s life to spiral out of control in a manner that’s a masterpiece of understatement.