Mothers’ Instinct: maternal grief turns deadly in this intense but predictable psychological thriller

Jessica Chastain and Anne Hathaway go toe to toe in a suspenseful suburban story dressed up in immaculate pastel outfits and one too many retro-thriller tropes.

26 March 2024

By Kate Stables

Jessica Chastain as Alice in Mother’s Instinct (2024)
Sight and Sound

Suburban motherhood is a hothouse incubator for murderous fears in Benoît Delhomme’s brittle, female-centred psychological thriller, which filters the maternal grief and guilt surrounding a child’s death into an intense if predictable suspense story.

He’s whipped up a handsome, 1960s-set showcase for stars-and-producers Jessica Chastain and Anne Hathaway, who engage in a mother-off here as suburban New Jersey next-door-neighbours whose friendship cracks when Alice (a taut, jittery Chastain) witnesses the accidental death of Celine’s young son Max. As the despairing Celine becomes fixated on Alice’s son Theo, a succession of ambiguous events (a stolen toy in Max’s coffin, Theo teetering on Max’s fatal-fall balcony, a nut-allergy near-miss) winds into a paranoid web of suspicion that haunts the guilt-ridden Alice.

Despite being anchored by a fine, well-matched pair of performances (Josh Charles’s grief-broken father, and Anders Danielsen Lie’s pragmatic husband are unapologetically sidelined), the film can’t shake off a slightly second-hand feel. Probably because it’s a very faithful (occasionally even shot-for-shot) English-language remake of Olivier Masset-Depasse’s dark 2018 Belgian drama Duelles, but one lacking the Hitchcockian crackle of the original. First-time director Delhomme (who’s had a distinguished career as a cinematographer on films like 2014’s The Theory of Everything) elects to keep the film visually simple, and firmly performance-led. Dressed with a few retro-thriller tropes (lots of window-spying shots, a house transformed from haven to deathtrap) it’s an elegant, if slightly characterless piece.

A film that shows a restrained nostalgia for the Sirkian suburban ‘drama of swollen emotion’, it is stickily obsessed by the social pressure on 1960s housewives to be perfect wives and mothers. “Is it enough for you, this life?” Alice asks the docile Celine early on, after her husband forbids her return to journalism, like a page from The Feminine Mystique. The repeated contrast of strained, well-mannered cocktail parties and tense suppers with glimpses of Hathaway writhing in despair or Chastain overcome by suspicions results in a clunky narrative insistence that domestic oppression brings forth lurid neuroses.

As the mysterious accidents and febrile accusations mount, the film’s good taste palls a bit. All that jealousy, gaslighting and coercion comes immaculately wrapped in pastel outfits, Chastain in a Tippi Hedren blonde chignon and neat shifts, while Hathaway channels White House-era Jackie Kennedy. One starts to long for a bit of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962) gothic quotable camp to liven up the proceedings. Fewer canapés, more catfights. Star wattage and period perfect sugar-almond-hued suits can only take a film so far.

 Mothers’ Instinct is in UK cinemas from 29 March.

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