It wouldn’t take much to convince an unsuspecting audience member that Mothers’ Instinct is the latest dispatch from the Don’t Worry Darling cinematic universe. The directorial debut of cinematographer Benoît Delhomme initially appears to be a surface-level rendering of a bygone era, a vaguely defined late 1950s or early 1960s, in which the women are talked out of career prospects and encouraged to stay at home to be wives and mothers, first and foremost, kept at a distance from their husbands’ lives. But, of course, nefarious secrets are discovered to be closer to home and far lower in concept within this stylish melodrama, which hews far closer to the “women’s pictures” of the period depicted in both style and substance than the campier thriller it’s being presented as––though those looking for the latter will still get what they ordered courtesy of Anne Hathaway’s brilliantly rendered turn as grieving mother Céline.

In recent years, the cultural tide has turned back in the actress’ favor thanks to a gradual acceptance that her unique balance of over-earnestness and near-meta self-awareness––which made her a punching bag in the Les Misérables era––is a feature and not a bug of her performance style. As with her turn in William Oldroyd’s more psychodramatic Eileen last year, she elevates ever-so-slightly undercooked material by being self-aware to what it demands of her without descending into archness, appearing beguilingly sincere while holding the audience and those around her at a calculated remove. We’re currently in a fascinating period of Hathaway’s career that almost––almost––suggests a deliberate response to the online backlash incurred a decade prior. Working within the bones of a genre that could be written off as “hagsploitation,” she’s very consciously opting to play women who could similarly be dismissed as easily by the world around them, aiming to show a more complicated figure beneath a demure, overly mannered façade.

There are already cracks in Céline’s façade upon introduction: some tensions in her friendship with neighbor Alice (Jessica Chastain) over their familial bliss, and at a dinner party, Alice’s husband Simon (Anders Danielsen Lie) talks extensively about wanting another child––Céline is unable to have any after complications that followed giving birth to son Max (Baylen D. Bielitz). There’s an unspoken jealousy from one woman to another, with one looking at the other to quietly mourn the stereotypical, Eisenhower-era family unit she can’t have. This is pushed further following the shock death of Max, who falls off a balcony while playing outside; Céline becomes unresponsive, and the dynamics in her friendship with Alice change forever. Alice rushed into their home to try stopping her son from falling––which was drowned out to Céline by the sound of her vacuum cleaner, this movie’s answer to an instrumental cover of “P.I.M.P.”––but failed to halt the accident, and suddenly her best friend becomes removed. But is it because she couldn’t stop the inevitable from happening, or is it because she still has the perfect family intact?

Mothers’ Instinct slowly, surely gravitates from social-issue melodrama into more conventional thriller territory, and this isn’t a slight letdown from what came before for how well Hathaway threads the needle between two disparate genres. The more impressive thing about Delhomme’s film––remaking a 2018 Belgian thriller of the same name, itself adapted from a 2012 novel––is that it, for the most part, commits to being a sincere, character-driven story about the very different effects grief has on two people, risking caricature because of its occasionally overblown theatrics while maintaining a sincerity through it all. No, there are no prizes for guessing that one of these two women is hiding a secret (or several) that complicates this as a straightforward story about loss, but that inevitable discovery isn’t at odds with the perceptiveness of the drama that came before it. If anything, it only heightens the thesis about ways in which the inability to deal with loss can lead to destructive behavior, staying true to the pain of the characters even as it plunges them into a blackly comic soap opera.

Observe the way Céline forms a close bond with Alice’s young son Theo (Eamon Patrick O’Connell) in the weeks following her own son’s death. The beats are played as unsubtly as you’d expect within a melodrama that was likely aspiring to the highs of Douglas Sirk––if it (naturally) doesn’t reach them, I wouldn’t fault a film from our cynical age for trying––but it crucially understands that sincerity is the key to selling such broad emotion. Though twists and turns reveal a level of deceit within this dynamic, there’s no overly manipulative calculation in how plot mechanics bring them together. There are genuinely poignant observations as to how they come to cling to each other in the face of an untimely death, and no third-act twists can undermine the resonance of that.

So while the third act delivers the inevitable campy melodrama that’s the chief selling point, it’s the film leading up to it that proves most remarkable: a sincere throwback to a deeply uncool cinema seemingly unconcerned with the ridicule it’ll likely receive. Mothers’ Instinct is far from a perfect film, but it would be just as home in the heyday of the women’s picture; that’s not nothing.

Mothers’ Instinct opens in the UK on March 27 and will be released in the U.S. by NEON.

Grade: B-

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