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Mothers’ Instinct review: This timid Anne Hathaway and Jessica Chastain melodrama needs more kitsch

Mothers’ Instinct has an achingly chic framework for Jessica Chastain and Anne Hathaway to stomp around in, with all the substance of a Vogue shoot. Transformed into psychologically fractious Sixties housewives, the actors pour cocktails while their hands shake, smoke erratically, and attempt to solve all their problems with bottles of chloroform. They do it with aplomb.

A blonde Chastain plays Alice, a former journalist under pressure from her husband to have a second child. Her pin-up doll smile betrays visible cracks. She’s prone to sudden outbursts, which she dutifully chases with shots of contrition. Hathaway, meanwhile, plays Céline, a mother who wants another child, but is no longer able to conceive. She carries the wound like a saint, her eyes downcast and her wardrobe pristine.

A sudden, violent accident rips through the lives of these close friends and neighbours, whose worlds don’t extend beyond their well-appointed front lawns. The women grow suspicious of each other, of both the sincerity of their grief, and their love for each other and their children. Events continue to spiral until, suddenly, we find ourselves in the middle of a Hitchcockian thriller.

Mothers’ Instinct is the kind of film we could always do with more of. It’s an opportunity, like last year’s May December, for two great actresses to lock horns, armed with characters written as psychological minefields – the kind of parts that Joan Crawford and Olivia de Havilland would once have killed for.

But there’s an odd timidity here that borders on self-denial. On the one hand, the costume work by Mitchell Travers is exquisite. Céline, at two key points in the film, rocks up in a dove-white, Jackie Kennedy-style skirt suit, and it’s a joy to connect the dots on what that reveals about the character’s intentions. Yet, beyond a handful of clever lighting choices, that bathe these women in an interrogatory spotlight, Mothers’ Instinct looks beautiful but ultimately feels sterile.

Such heightened emotions – there’s a suspicious, lingering shot of a teacup in one scene, while a hysterical Alice lobs a gift-wrapped present right at Céline’s front door in another – deserve the rich, seductive technicolour of a Douglas Sirk melodrama. Here, they look comparatively washed out. It makes it harder for those moments to land, as if Mothers’ Instinct were afraid of its own kitsch.

Stylish and sinister: Anne Hathaway in ‘Mothers’ Instinct’ (Alyssa Longchamp)
Stylish and sinister: Anne Hathaway in ‘Mothers’ Instinct’ (Alyssa Longchamp)

It’s particularly odd considering the film is a remake of a 2018 Belgian thriller of the same name – and also adapted from a novel by Barbara Abel – that had far more of the Sirkian look, and was all the better for it. This Hollywood iteration, marking the directorial debut of cinematographer Benoît Delhomme, seems far less interested in creating any sense of atmosphere, than it is in proudly displaying the A-list muscle of its leads. It means much of the film is captured in reverential close-up. It’s the first time Chastain and Hathaway have actually acted opposite each other, despite starring in both Interstellar and James Gray’s coming-of-age drama Armageddon Time. So, you can’t really blame the excitement – it merely seems as if something may have been lost in translation.

Dir: Benoît Delhomme. Starring: Jessica Chastain, Anne Hathaway, Josh Charles, Anders Danielsen Lie. 15, 94 minutes.

‘Mothers’ Instinct’ is in cinemas