Film review: ‘Birthmarked’ starring Matthew Goode and Toni Collette
“I think of the newborn baby’s mind as a blank book”– Walt Disney
I regret giving such a low rating to this film; it is based on an interesting concept with a great deal of potential and is a worthwhile effort with a talented cast. Unfortunately, it never quite comes together. The story is patchy, the humour falls flat, and the entire story, in spite of an obvious effort to make a point, never quite commits itself to any solid idea or moral. It’s a shame because a great deal could be made of this theme – and should have been, given the promising past output of Birthmarked’s writer/director Emmanuel Hoss-Desmarais.
Two brilliant doctors in the areas of human behaviour and psychology, Ben Morin (Matthew Goode) and Kathryn O’Neil (Toni Collette) meet and marry in the 1970s. Both have been working on the concept of ‘nature vs nurture’ in humans; both feel strongly that upbringing is the main force that moulds the human mind and character. Urged by a mentor, famous scientist Dr Gertz (Michael Smiley) to ‘think outside the box,’ they submit a proposal to him, asking him to act as patron and sponsor of an ambitious, extended study. The Morins plan to raise three children – the baby they expect soon, and two adopted children – with an eye to proving that upbringing can overcome genetic predisposition. Dr Gertz agrees, and once Kathryn gives birth and the adoption papers are signed, the years-long study is underway.
The couple’s biological child, as the son of two scientists who are also the children of scientists, will be encouraged to develop his artistic abilities. The adopted daughter, the child of generations of people with an extremely low IQ, will be raised to be intelligent and pursue scientific studies. The adopted son, whose parents were notoriously and extraordinarily angry and violent, will be brought up as a pacifist. They are aided and records kept by their one assistant, grim-faced Soviet defector Samsonov (Andreas Apergis, known for playing a long series of dark, frightening soldiers and assassins), whose ennui and awkwardness are offered as comic relief.
Having established the odd arrangement of a family with three infants being run partly as a normal household, partly as a laboratory, the film moves ahead to 1989. The film provides documentary-like coverage of day to day life in the family, with a calm female voice-over providing commentary on the process, but with no explanation of the source of this footage at this point. It is less than a year before the time allotted for the Morins’ experiment ends, and things are not going quite as planned. Both doctors are worried that their efforts to disprove the effects of genetics will be a failure. To the Morins, seeing things through the eyes of behavioural scientists, the children are not merely failing to develop the expected traits; they are acting out, rebelling, engaging in hostile interactions with their siblings and even in borderline violent behaviour. To the audience, it is fairly clear that the children are not disasters or failures, but merely ordinary children, engaging in silly horseplay, teasing each other, rolling their eyes at their parents’ rules, and sometimes getting into trouble like all children.
The failure of the Morins, scientifically trained but clueless about ordinary childhood behaviour, to recognize what is going on, is meant to be a source of humour. Unfortunately, even with the efforts of first-rate comic actress Toni Collette, the parents’ desperation and unproductive efforts don’t come across as funny. Neither does Kathryn’s resulting emotional collapse, or Ben’s overreaction and single-minded efforts to get the children and the study back in step. The contrast between confident scientific beliefs and the realities of family life provide ironic humour, but the possibilities are underutilised. A painful attempt at broad comedy is found in Ben’s unwittingly bizarre, coldly scientific attempt to force son Luke, the intended artist, to express his newly developing sexuality through dance, a scene which is too uncomfortable and borderline abusive to be truly funny. In a climax of domestic and professional chaos, eventually, the entire Morin family collapses, along with their ‘nature vs nurture’ study and much of their faith in behavioural science.
Some amusing bits emerge in the final scenes and during the credits, when the children’s ultimate interests and career choices are revealed, ironically playing on the Morins’ (and our own) expectations. The conclusion, along with some fairly thoughtful satire on scientific assumptions vs the reality of human nature, fine performances by the two leads, and a remarkably good soundtrack marking the passing years from the mid-1970s onward, make the film watchable. It’s unfortunate that the script missed the mark, ending up as neither a truly funny and pointed comedy or a sharp, dramatic exploration of some interesting concepts. It’s not truly bad; it just could have been much better.