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Mothers’ Instinct Review: Anne Hathaway and Jessica Chastain Mawkish Melodrama

Anne Hathaway and Jessica Chastain bring melodrama to a predictable thriller about tragedy in 1960s suburbia.

Mothers Instinct Review
Anton / Neon

Celine (Anne Hathaway) and Alice (Jessica Chastain) are wealthy, stay-at-home housewives who seemingly live perfect lives. The two women are neighbors with adorable nine-year-old sons and hard-working yet loving husbands. When tragedy strikes down their slice of haven, their relationship begins to unravel.

The guilt the women feel about the tragedy leads to a battle over white picket fences. Alice believes Celine blames her for the tragedy and is now plotting her family’s downfall. Celine becomes perilously close to Alice’s son, infiltrating every area of the lives of her neighbors.

Mothers Instinct Review

Mothers’ Instinct Review
Anton / Neon

The real power of Mothers’ Instinct lies in the performances of the lead two actresses. Anne Hathaway’s Celine is cutting and glossy, with her Jackie Kennedy bouffant and sad brown eyes. Jessica Chastain’s Alice is a little less comfortable fitting into the housewife cliché. She avoids conversations about a second child and is desperate to get back to the workplace. The former journalist struggles to accept life as a stay-at-home mother, believing there is more to life than waiting on your husband and son.

Hathaway delivers a melodramatic performance that even Elizabeth Taylor would be proud of as a grieving mother. Chastain is a worthy opponent, never quite matching Hathaway’s intense energy. No matter how perfect Celine is on the outside, Hathaway’s performance always hints that something more sinister is lying behind her veneer of sweet sincerity. Chastain’s performance is a little more grounded, with her character wearing her nervous heart on her sleeve.

Mothers Instinct Review
Anton / Neon

Josh Charles impresses as Celine’s grief-stricken husband. His layered performance as a man of his era, trying to hold his emotions inside, deserves more screen time than it receives. Anders Danielsen Lie is given even less as a one-dimensional, hard-working, but unsympathetic husband.

Any character backstory about the two leads is wasted in favor of a twisty tale of deceit that fails to pay off. Mothers’ Instinct would have fared better by concentrating more on the nuances of Celine and Alice, two different women playing the same character expected from them by society.

Mother’s Instinct is an aesthetically pleasing movie directed by celebrated cinematographer Benoît Delhomme in his feature debut. With bright pastel hues and an uncomfortably unnatural sheen, there are hints of both David Lynch and Todd Haynes in the stylistic choices made. The costumes are a high point of the movie; the two lead actresses are seen in a never-ending array of beautiful dresses, six-inch stilettos, and backcombed hair. Every choice in costume, set design, and direction feels inauthentic and performative like these two women are putting on a show by waving their husbands goodbye in their front yard.

Mothers’ Instinct Review
Anton / Neon

Written by Sarah Conrad and loosely based on the 2012 French-language thriller Derrière la haine (Behind the Hate) by Barbara Abel, the script is the weakest element of Mothers’ Instinct. Everything is delivered with a heavy hand that almost feels like a parody of Hollywood melodramas of days gone by. Unlike May December, which also saw two talented actresses face-off in roles that would have been performed by Joan Crawford and Olivia De Havilland decades prior, Mother’s Instinct doesn’t quite understand what it wants to achieve tonally. Is this a serious movie about motherhood and grief, or a camp melodrama about 60’s housewives? It doesn’t quite deliver on either. 

Mother’s Instinct is at its best when it picks about the veneer of 1960s Americana and the grief that threatens the lives of all those around them. The heart of the film ultimately gets lost in hammy performance and an uneven script that would rather deliver paranoid twists that explore the trauma suffered by these women. 

Mothers’ Instinct Review
Anton / Neon

The movie’s climax loses itself in camp melodrama that is more akin to a soap opera than a thriller starring two Oscar winners. The intrigue set up throughout the movie by the two women whose mental health is severely compromised by grief and guilt is wasted in favor of the mawkish finale.

The 1960s suburbia setting lends itself to gender-critical ideas of women of the era but only touches on the concept. While Mothers’ Instinct appears to be critical to the stereotypes that held women back, it never commits fully to the ideas. It also touches on the societal expectations of mothers and wives, yet never divulges beneath the surface.

Mothers’ Instinct wants to be a Hitchcock thriller but shares more DNA with an episode of Desperate Housewives. Despite enigmatic performances, Mothers’ Instinct doesn’t have a clear point of view, nor does it deliver on the twists it promises throughout the film.

Grade: C-



Mothers' Instinct

Mothers' Instinct

Best friends and neighbors Alice and Celine both live an idyllic traditional lifestyle with manicured lawns, successful husbands and sons of the same age. Life’s perfect harmony is suddenly shattered after a tragic accident. Guilt, suspicion and paranoia combine to unravel their sisterly bond and a psychological battle of wills begins as the maternal instinct reveals its darker side.

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