Annette Bening got a lot of well-deserved attention 2010 for her work in “The Kids Are Alright” — including an Oscar nomination — but few have seen the other superb performance she gave that year, as an emotionally closed-off middle-aged Los Angeles nurse in Rodrigo Garcia’s “Mother and Child.”
Karen gave up a daughter to adoption when she was just a teenager and when we meet her more than 30 years later, she is devoted to caring for her elderly mother (Eileen Ryan) and her hospital job.
The movie crosscuts between the Bening character and the grown daughter, she has never met — Elizabeth (Naomi Watts) — who is a high-powered attorney in L.A.
In a separate plot thread, Kerry Washington plays Lucy, another Angeleno trying to adopt a child after she and her husband have gone through the agony of failed fertility treatments. The lives of Karen and Elizabeth and Lucy eventually intersect in the film’s extraordinarily emotional closing scenes.
Karen is the character who goes through the biggest changes, as she deals with the death of her mother and a new co-worker played by Jimmy Smits (above) who manages to break through the hard shell the woman has maintained for years.
Karen also starts thinking about trying to contact her long lost daughter.
Bening gives the sort of warts-and-all performance that is more common in European films than in contemporary Hollywood movies.
It is refreshing to see an American star in her 50s who still looks like a real woman and who can play characters that are not glamorous.
You can visit Internet chat rooms in which Bening’s appearance in this movie is mercilessly criticized, but the unvarnished look contributes to the power and the depth of the performance.
One of the most moving — and realistic — elements in the film is the way that Karen’s life changes make her more attractive both emotionally and physically. The camera comes in close to Bening and she and Garcia use the close-up in a way that is reminiscent of Ingmar Bergman’s work with actresses back in the 1960s and ’70s. Bergman believed nothing in a movie could compare with the face of a great actress, a philosophy Garcia obviously shares.